Mali crisis: Relief in Diabaly as French forces roll in

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Media captionWatch locals in Diabaly show Andrew Harding the wreckage of their week-long ordeal

It's a straight, bumpy ride alongside a brimming canal to the shabby, mud-walled garrison town of Diabaly.

The French army - soldiers from a regiment based in Chad - arrived here in a long convoy, and with no obvious sense of haste.

Civilians had told us on Saturday that the Islamists had just abandoned the town, fleeing east across the irrigated fields towards some forests.

But it was not until Monday morning that the main French force - accompanied by some of the same Malian government troops who had been chased out a week earlier - rolled into Diabaly to stares, smiles and a palpable sense of relief among many local civilians.

A Malian commander suggested that some Islamists might still be lurking in the area. But the population seemed to doubt that.

They crowded round the French armoured vehicles, and gave us a detailed tour of the various craters and mangled, burned-out rebel vehicles that marked the targets of the French airstrikes that had hammered the town - with evident accuracy - for many days.

A group of children pointed towards the canal - a little downstream from where women were busy doing their washing.

The body of a man in black trousers and a khaki shirt lay by the water's edge - an Islamist rebel, we were told. Others had been buried in the local cemetery by their comrades.

Stark reminder

So who were the fighters who swept into Diabaly last week - deliberately targeting a town with an army garrison and a plentiful supply of weapons?

Over the past few days, many civilians have told us about the foreign jihadists - some lighter skinned Arabs, others perhaps from Nigeria or other nearby countries - who offered sweets to the children in Diabaly, and spoke of their desire to bring Islamic Sharia law to the town.

Image caption Cheikna Traore said he hid in the town when it was overrun by Islamists

"We do not want Sharia. It is not for us," said Idrissa Sangare, remembering how the population had hid indoors during what, for many, must have felt like an invasion, a siege and a hostage crisis rolled into one.

But the militants were by no means all foreign. Some, we were told, were even well-known locals.

A soldier called Cheikna Traore, who is stationed at the garrison and said he hid in the town when it was overrun, showed us the wreckage of his home.

He said it had been deliberately targeted by some of his former colleagues who had swapped sides and joined the militants.

"Yes, I know their names. Lt Col Usman, and there was Cpl Abu," he said. "All these were here before, working with us. But they deserted a year ago."

Maj Traore said the men had apparently gone to join the forces of the MNLA, a Tuareg separatist group which launched a rebellion last year in northern Mali.

"But when they came back here, we found they were with the jihadists, and they wanted to take revenge on us. They want easy money. They think the jihadists have money - that's all. It's not about Islam," he said.

Another soldier, Roland Coulibaly, confirmed that account, claiming that many of the rebels were former army soldiers and declaring: "We will track them down now and kill them all."

It is a stark reminder of the fact that, while Mali may be grappling with international threats, the roots of much of the current turmoil here are home-grown, and highly complex.

Image caption Diabaly is on the front line between government troops and Islamist forces

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