BAMAKO, Mali — Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, including a strategic military camp, bringing them much closer to the capital, French and Malian military officials said.
After cutting off a key road, the al-Qaida-linked extremists overran the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the region of Segou, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity.
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 failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 250 miles from the capital, Bamako, in the far south.
The rebels took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn't hold them back, Le Drian said.
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 fighters control the north but had been blocked in the narrow 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.
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. Even Algeria, which had argued against military intervention, is helping France by opening its air space to French jets.
Many of Mali's neighbors, who had been pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, had argued that airstrikes by sophisticated Western aircraft would be no match for the rebel groups occupying northern Mali. Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert and it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles from the air because there is almost no ground cover.
Monday's surprise assault and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last Friday have given many pause. Just hours before Diabaly fell, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately to the south, laughed on the phone and confidently asserted the Islamists would never take Niono. By afternoon, the commander, who was not authorized to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate. We feel truly threatened, he said.