At makeshift checkpoints, they searched anyone they suspected of being a spy. They occupied houses, both to sleep and to hide weapons. They looted medicine from the hospital and stole chickens from residents.
In some cases, women were ordered to cover their faces, and men were told not to smoke. But the militants did not impose the harsh brand of Islamic law they have elsewhere in Mali, suggesting that they knew their takeover of Diabaly would be temporary.
It was: By Monday, French soldiers were on patrol here and the rebels had retreated. But a visit to Diabaly, the first by Western journalists since the militant takeover, revealed the challenges that await France and its allies as they try to beat back a violent Islamist movement that has split this country in two.
Many of the obstacles have become predictable for any conventional army waging a counterinsurgency, but they are no less daunting for their familiarity. They suggest a long campaign ahead in a country that has traditionally been seen as a backwater but has suddenly been thrust into the center of an escalating war between Western forces and Africa’s Islamist extremists.
During their short stay, the militants thoroughly infiltrated Diabaly, residents said, turning this desert town of 24,000 into a sprawling human shield.
“They placed big guns on the roof to target airplanes,” said Suleiman Dambele, 56, a veterinarian, pointing in the direction of a nearby house in his neighborhood.
Residents said French airstrikes, while precise, landed uncomfortably close to the homes of civilians.
Barnabe Dakou, 63, and his family were sleeping when an airstrike destroyed two rebel pickup trucks in the street outside their home. Shrapnel sliced through the walls, injuring Dakou and his 40-year-old son, Francois. Outside, the trucks were burning, and the bodies of two militants lay near a door. The family huddled together the rest of the night. In the morning, they fled Diabaly.
“We took nothing with us,” Francois Dakou recalled. “We just ran.”
The extremist takeover of wide swaths of Mali has been nearly a year in the making. In March, Islamist fighters took advantage of a military coup and a rebellion by Tuareg separatists to sweep across the country’s northern half. They soon pushed out the secular separatists and implemented a harsh interpretation of Islamic law that included public amputations, stonings and whippings.
The Islamists are made up of three groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the terror network’s West and North Africa wing — an offshoot of which took responsibility for last week’s hostage crisis in neighboring Algeria, which left at least 37 foreigners dead.