Army units from France and Mali intend to use Niono as a launch pad as they plan an advance to retake the Islamist-held town of Diabaly. Alice Fordham reports from Niono
Mali erupts in applause as French troops roll into town
NIONO, MALI // Cheering and clapping broke out as a French convoy rolled into this small town on Saturday evening, and cries of "Long live the French army" filled the air as the soldiers stepped from their armoured vehicles, nodded graciously at a man wearing a robe made from the tricolour, and strode into the prefecture to discuss battle plans with the Malian commander.
The next town up the road from Niono is Diabaly, about 40 kilometres away. On January 14, Al Qaeda-linked fighters stormed through Diabaly with dozens of lorries mounted with heavy artillery and scattered French and Malian troops. Then the invaders began attacking shops, cars and houses.
Overwhelmed and afraid of causing civilian casualties, Malian soldiers and their French counterparts, who had arrived in the area only the day before, left the town.
After a five-day bombing campaign targeting the militants, the militaries of France and Mali are now using Niono as a staging ground and have made their first moves into Diabaly to reoccupy it. But commanders and civilians say that the Islamist insurgents, though weakened, could be hiding among the local population and that ending the threat they pose will be difficult.
Few here doubt the magnitude of the demanding task ahead. When French troops joined a Malian government ground offensive on January 10, the advantage in this war shifted away from Islamist rebels occupying the north of this West African country.
Yet it is a conflict likely to be marked by ebbs and flows, for even if forces from the Malian government, France and other African nations win control of major towns, preventing them from reverting to rebel control will not be easy. The insurgents are highly mobile and dedicated, and central government control is weak.
"It's a situation of war," said Seydou Traore, the prefect - local council leader - of Niono, whose office compound has been transformed into a small army base, with men repairing kit, washing socks and cooking great cauldrons of food.
Since he awoke on January 14 to find that Diabaly had been taken and that the rebel fighters were poised to head down the road to Niono, Mr Traore has created a network of informers who provide intelligence on rebel locations, which is passed on to the military.
French fighter jets have screamed over the town as often as 10 times a night, according to locals. The jets are on their way to bombard the vehicles and weapons caches of the militant groups who have held the northern desert territory of the West African country for nearly 10 months.
"On Thursday," said Mr Traore, "they began to retreat ... Right now they are not in Diabaly, but where are they?" They could have crossed into neighbouring Mauritania, he said, or have gone into the interior of Mali or be hiding in the thick forest of Ouagadou, a district to the west. Even if they no longer threaten to overrun Niono, an administrative centre close to a crucial bridge over the river Niger, the rebels could strike at any moment.
"It's not possible to tell if the jihadists have left Diabaly 100 per cent," said Lt Col Seydoun Sogoba, the Malian commanding officer in the area.
Their vehicles are destroyed, or have left the city, and the fighters are no longer visibly present. But, he added: "At certain times, they did collaborate with certain parts of the population. It's difficult to tell the difference between them ... nowhere on anyone's face is written 'Islamist'."
Among residents of Niono, there remains a fear that the rebels, who imposed an extreme form of Sharia in the northern areas and are accused of rape and murder, could still come to their town in the verdant agricultural heartland of the country.
Awa Traore, a 30-year-old teacher, was riding a scooter, wearing a blue-and-yellow dress, several gold earrings and elaborate make-up when she stopped to cheer the French.
"If the Islamists left, it's because of France," she said, adding that she was not confident they had left entirely and that she was certain they would stop her riding her scooter if they came to town.
French leaders have expressed a preference for a short campaign in Mali, but Lt Col Frederic, a commanding officer who did not give his full name, said on his way into the strategy meeting that "of course" the fighters could come back. "It is one of the possibilities."
The mayor of Diabaly, Oumar Diakite, returned to the town on Saturday, but said he was afraid that weapons stores and explosives left behind could pose a danger.
A few hours' drive north-east of Diabaly is the town of Konna, close to a key airbase, which prompted French military action after months of equivocating after it was overrun by rebels earlier in the month. But it, too, may not be completely cleared of rebels or explosives, said soldiers in the area.
The uncertainty of the gains and the fear that various groups in Mali - Ansar Eddine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa - could easily stage insurgent-style attacks suggests that there will be lingering security problems in this vast country. West African troops, beginning with Nigerians, have begun arriving in the capital, Bamako, to help.
Many Malians, fearful of what may come next, fervently want international forces to keep helping them. In the village of Banamba, about a two-hour drive from Diabaly, a village elder said that people had been worrying him constantly with questions about the war.
"Since the French came, the people have calmed down," said Mustapha Sempara, sitting with his friends in the street of the farming village. "I hope they stop the war."
In the local council, Daouda Coulibay said that without France's help, Mali, a relatively peaceful, beautiful country where a moderate form of Islam is practised, would be "finished. It would be like Somalia".
The Malian army would have no chance against the extremist forces, who hail from Algeria, Mauritania and other places, and have gained experience fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They are more strong than us, more determined. They have in their mind that if they die, it's in God's name," Mr Coulibay said.
"Of course we want the French here," he added. "They are the answer to our prayers."