French warplanes continued to bomb rebel targets in northern Mali on Wednesday, forcing Islamist fighters to cede more ground to advancing French and Malian troops.
A resident of Ansongo, a town near the border with Niger, told the German DPA news agency that airstrikes were forcing the fighters to abandon key positions. Timbuktu, an ancient city to the west, was also being bombed.
"As long as armed groups remain present in those areas the air raids will continue," said a Malian officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Each time we discover a [rebel] base, we will bomb it."
A resident of Timbuktu told DPA by telephone that rebels were still present in the town, despite air raids. French forces this week bombed a rebel headquarters in the area, a palace built by former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted from power in 2011.
'We are very happy'
The retreat has also prompted residents of Diabaly, a town in central Mali, to return. It was briefly overrun by the rebels shortly after France started its airstrikes.
"We are very happy that the Islamists are no longer in this city," said Fatoumata Dicko, a vendor who sells onions at the local market. "When they arrived... we all got scared. We ran to hide with our children. But today, we are confident because the French and Mali army are present."
The crisis started after army officers staged a coup against the Malian government in March 2012 to protest against the handling of an ethnic Tuareg rebellion in the north.
A month later, the rebels seized key towns in the north, but were quickly swept aside by Islamist groups who had been their former allies.
The UN authorised an African-led force in December to retake the north of Mali. A rebel push toward Bamako this month prompted France to intervene, forcing governments in West Africa to mobilize forces faster than expected.
Though France remains the sole power conducting the airstrikes, it has been receiving some logistical support from European nations and Canada. The United States has also begun to supply transport planes for airlifting French troops.
Japan shuts embassy
About 2,300 French troops are now on the ground in Mali, along with nearly 1,000 African troops, according to information from Paris.
More than 500 Chadian troops have arrived in Niamey, though they have yet to cross the border from Niger to the north of Mali. The Chadians are expected to be entrusted with the bulk of the ground fighting that will fall under the jurisdiction of African forces.
A donor conference set to take place in Addis Ababa over the weekend aims to raise several hundred million dollars for the military operations.
Japan, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it would close its Malian embassy over growing security fears.
"After the French military advance the already unstable situation in Mali worsened further," a foreign ministry spokesman, Yutaka Yokoi, told reporters in Tokyo.
The decision came a day after Japan announced that at least seven of its citizens were killed in a hostage siege in Algeria, which neighbours Mali, after an attack by Islamists which they said was retaliation for the French offensive.