French troops greeted as liberators in Mali

January 22, 2013

A boy in the Malian town of Diabalay stands next to a French national flag hung on a goalpost, meant to welcome French soldiers. (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

Not long after French troops secured the Malian town of Diabaly, pushing out the Islamist rebels who had seized it five days earlier, the Post's Sudarsan Raghavan arrived. In his dispatch from Diabaly, he finds a number of residents who seem grateful for the military intervention, citing both the cruelty of the rebels and lack of civilian casualties from the French assault.

In this moment and in this town, at least, the French seem to be treated as liberators rather than as foreign occupiers. French troops' seizure of Diabaly, the southern-most town where the rebels reached, marks the beginning of France's push into rebel-held territory. Here's Raghavan:

Residents said that no civilians were killed in the airstrikes, despite their proximity to civilian areas. And even those who were injured appeared to accept the strikes as the only way to drive out the rebels, who had fled by Saturday morning.

“If we were not bombed, [the militants] would have killed all of us and they would have stayed in Diabaly,” said Barnabe Dakou, who returned with his family on Saturday. The charred carcasses of the two destroyed trucks remained outside his house.

Christians, targeted by the Islamist rebels, appear particularly happy to see them gone. Although they are not alone.

Raphael Dembele, a member of the town’s Christian minority, said the militants had beaten a group of Christians and told them they were no longer allowed to practice their religion. “They said, ‘This is the American way. We don’t need it,’ ” Dembele recalled.

Most of the Christians who fled last week have yet to return.

Muslims, too, are apprehensive. Residents said they didn’t want the soldiers, especially the French, to leave Diabaly. The militants, many believe, are hiding in a nearby forest.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this sentiment will last. The campaign against the Islamist rebels, this early victory notwithstanding, is likely to be protracted. The longer that the French troops remain, the more likely they are to wear out their welcome in Mali.

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Max Fisher | January 22, 2013