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Mali takes key town as nations prepare more troops

By Nima Elbagir and Ingrid Formanek, CNN
updated 8:44 AM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
  • NEW: French officials say Islamists have been pushed to forest beyond Diabaly
  • West Africa's regional bloc says it has 3,300 troops on standby
  • France may send more troops
  • An Islamic official was killed in revenge for the death of a journalist, a witness says

Sevare, Mali (CNN) -- The Malian military has gained control of the central town of Diabaly, a key advance in the battle against Islamist militants in the north.

The country's forces retook the town without ground assistance from French troops, a military spokesman said. The French military confirmed that it provided only air support.

French officials said Malian forces pushed the Islamists into the forest beyond Diabaly.

Rebel control over Diabaly was one of the chief concerns to Mali and France as they tried to stop the Islamists' movement into the south. French involvement began after militants said January 10 that they had seized another town, Konna.

French and Malian forces retook the key town of Konna from militants Friday, a French source said. Gunfire could be heard in the town Monday.

Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks. Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks.
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In the town of Sevare, roads were cordoned off and journalists restricted as battles raged.

As fighting continues, many people are being cut off and in need of basic supplies.

Read more: Six reasons events in Mali matter

France is considering sending more troops to assist the Malian military.

The number could top 2,500, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday. There are about 2,000 French troops in Mali so far, he told CNN affiliate France 3.

French President Francois Hollande said the offensive's mission is to destroy the terrorist groups that have taken root.

West African leaders are also discussing possibilities for additional forces. Regional leaders met Saturday in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan to discuss speeding up deployment of troops.

The regional bloc -- the Economic Community Of West African States -- has said it has 3,300 regional troops on standby.

It urged the United Nations to provide immediate logistical and financial support for African troops.

"The escalation of conflict in recent days reminds us the importance of assuming our responsibilities very quickly in a dynamic of coordination with our partners," said Charles Koffi Diby, the Ivory Coast foreign minister. "We should act very quickly."

The ongoing conflict highlights the growing Islamist threat in Mali, a once-promising democracy hit last year with a rebellion from ethic Tuaregs who returned well-armed from fighting for late Libyan leader Moamar Gadhafi. A military coup followed, with Islamic extremists capitalizing on the chaos to carve out a large haven in Mali's north.

They imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law, banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also damaged historic tombs and shrines.

The developments have raised fears among global security experts that Mali could become a new hub for Islamist terrorists.

On Saturday, demonstrators in the city of Gao killed the chief of Islamic police, who was imposing Sharia law on behalf of the Islamists.

A day earlier, Islamist militants killed local journalist Kader Toure for allegedly giving information to the Malian army. The journalist was shot while on his motorcycle, a witness told CNN.

Demonstrators in Gao avenged the reporter's death on Saturday by killing police chief Aliou Maiga, an eyewitness said.

'It was absolutely necessary'

Despite its unilateral decision to get involved, France is seeking help from its regional allies and the international community.

Christian Rouyer, French ambassador to Mali, reiterated the need for the French offensive in Mali.

"We had a friendly country that was on the verge of dying," Rouyer said Friday. "It was absolutely necessary to act with urgency. We did it, I believe, with full knowledge of the reasons."

Involvement brings perils.

After neighboring Algeria allowed France to use its airspace to take on insurgents, militants angry about the move stormed a gas field in eastern Algeria and took hostages, leading to three days of chaos that ended Saturday, leaving 23 hostages and dozens of Islamist militants dead.

Still, leaders from several countries have offered troops or logistical support.

The European Union has approved a training mission. Canada and Britain are deploying military transport aircraft. Nigeria is set to deploy soldiers as part of a U.N.-mandated African force to fight the insurgents.

No military aid from U.S.

U.S. policy prohibits direct military aid to Mali because the fledgling government is the result of a coup. No support can go to the Malian military directly until leaders are chosen through an election, said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman.

So far, the United States has only shared intelligence from intercepted signals and satellites with France, defense officials said.

U.S. trainers will be in African nations to prepare forces set to be deployed in Mali. Trainers will be in Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo and Ghana.

The United Nations is warning of a record number of Malians fleeing to neighboring nations.

The unrest could soon displace up to 700,000 in the country and around the region, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.

What's behind the instability in Mali?

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