Residents of Diabaly, which is only about 250 miles northeast of the nation’s capital, said Malian soldiers clashed with the militants but then retreated from the area. Although Malian military officials have said that French special forces were also in Diabaly fighting the militants, residents said they did not see any French soldiers until days later.
Residents said 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.
On Monday, French soldiers walked the town, securing areas where the rebels had stored weapons. Malian soldiers stood near their vehicles. Even after the rebel withdrawal Saturday, it had taken more than 48 hours to enter Diabaly because of concerns about snipers.
Destruction inflicted by the militants was most visible inside a church. A wooden cross was broken in two. The militants had fired bullets into the roof. Bible pages lay ripped on the concrete floor.
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.
“We are uneasy,” said Amadou Traore, 36, a butcher. “They can easily come back.”