BAMAKO, Mali Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, including a strategic military camp, drawing them much closer to the capital, French and Malian military officials said.
Early Monday, the al-Qaida-linked extremists cut off the road leading to the garrison town of Diabaly. By afternoon they succeeded in overrunning the town and overtaking the military base, located about 100 miles north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday.
The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French citizens in the region of Segou, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety.
The French military, which began battling the extremists in northern Mali on Friday, expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But the intense assault including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who now are only 250 miles from the capital Bamako, in the far south.
Before France sent in its forces Friday, the closest known spot the Islamists were to the capital was 420 miles away, in the town of Konna.
France’s defense minister said Monday that the rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn’t hold them back.”
The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the West African nation. The Islamist fighters control the north and had been blocked in Mali’s narrow waist in the central part of the landlocked nation. They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces.
Mali’s government has imposed a state of emergency, giving broader powers to the security forces. Mauritania lies to the northwest of Mali and its armed forces have been put on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso has sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks.