French and Malian troops continued to advance northeast on Tuesday, hours after seizing several central towns from rebels.
A Malian official said that the troops intended to push towards the city of Hombori, in the Mopti region. The joint mission, involving French and African troops, aims to wrest back control of northern Mali from al-Qaeda-linked forces who have held control since early last year.
On Monday, troops seized control of Diabaly, Konna and Doutenza, three strategic towns in central Mali.
Diabaly, 350km north of the capital Bamako, had harboured the main cluster of rebels south of the front line, until French air attacks forced them to flee or attempt to blend in with locals, residents said.
French television footage from Diabaly showed charred pick-up trucks abandoned by rebels amid mud brick homes.
‘Regular life has resumed’
One resident said the rebels had fled the town which was abandoned by many of its residents, and those remaining lacked food and other essentials. There was little fighting in either town when ground troops arrived.
“Regular life has resumed in Konna,” resident Aguibou Toure told the DPA news agency by telephone. “French and Malian troops secured the city. Some people who previously fled have started to come back to the city.”
France began its military offensive in Mali on January 11, and has said that African nations must take the lead, though it could be some weeks before they are ready to do so. Britain said on Monday that it would consider giving more help to French forces, but would not take a combat role in the conflict.
The rebel takeover in northern Mali sparked a growing refugee crisis, with more than 7,000 people fleeing to neighbouring countries over just the past few weeks, according to the United Nations. Some 400,000 Malians have become refugees or internally displaced in the past year.
A state of emergency, in effect since January 12, bans any large public gatherings or other acts that could affect public order, and the government in Bamako on Tuesday extended it by three months.
Officials said no French airstrikes were reported early on Tuesday.
The French offensive has won wide support in the West, and is generally popular among the population in Mali, but it has been criticised by several regional leaders. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi said on Monday that it “could aggravate the conflict in the region” and stressed that “any intervention should be peaceful and aimed at development.”