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Islamists extend control in central mali

| Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 9:38 p.m.

NIONO, Mali — Islamist militants appeared on Thursday to have expanded their control in central Mali, occupying two villages after government troops abandoned their positions.

Refugees and local officials said that the Islamists, who on Monday drove Malian troops from their garrison in the town of Diabaly, on Wednesday rolled into the village of Sokolo, nine miles northwest of Diabaly, without a fight after government troops withdrew.

The rebels also took control of the village of Dogofry, nine miles north of Diabaly, when government troops pulled out after the fall of Diabaly.

That left this administrative center as the government's most forward position, and the rallying point for a growing number of French ground troops who local officials anticipate may soon mount a push to retake Diabaly, 40 miles to the north.

“They had no choice but to withdraw,” said local prefect, Seydou Traore, the top administrator for the area, about the government soldiers' decision to withdraw southward. “They cannot match the weapons the rebels have. We need help.”

How soon a counteroffensive might come, however, was unclear. Reports that the French ground forces had engaged in fighting with insurgents at Diabaly were exaggerated, fleeing residents said, and the size of the French force, numbering a few hundred troops at most, was smaller than the 1,000 or more Islamists that French officials in Paris have said are operating in the area.

Residents also reported that French airstrikes appear to be decreasing in both effectiveness and number.

During the day, the French are bombing from jets — MiGs, the locals call them, after the Russian aircraft. At night, French helicopters attack targets at much closer range. French special forces, visible moving behind the Niono front lines during the day, may be identifying targets in night raids from the ground, but there has been no French infantry assault.

The air attacks are hurting the rebels, said a group of four villagers who fled Diabaly.

“I've seen them piling up the corpses for burial,” said Aly Diarra, 30, who worked for an agricultural company. At least eight rebel vehicles have been destroyed in the bombardments, he said.

But the airstrikes have not dislodged the Islamists from their positions, they said.

Fleeing villagers say that the rebels have parked their trucks next to houses or inside residential compounds, sometimes punching a hole in the wall to enter if necessary. Those trucks usually have automatic weapons mounted on the back and engage with the French helicopters in firefights. Sometimes, the houses are damaged in the process.

Still, the Islamists, although successfully shaking off the French air power, have not yet marched into the rapidly swelling French ground ranks here - nor, many here feel, are they likely to do so.

In absence of ground troops who can take on the insurgents, the French-led coalition also is stuck — at least for the moment.

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