DIABALY, Mali (AP) -- French troops took control Monday of the Malian town of Diabaly, patrolling the streets in armored personnel carriers and inspecting the charred remains of a pickup truck with mounted machine gun left behind by the fleeing militants.
The armed Islamist fighters seized Diabaly a week ago but left after days of being pounded by French airstrikes, marking the first tangible victory by the French intervention forces.
The military operation is aimed at stopping the Islamists from encroaching toward the capital in Mali's south from their strongholds in the vast, desert north of Mali.
Diabaly fell into rebel hands on Jan. 14, and residents said those who fled were forced to escape on foot through rice fields. The Islamist fighters had insinuated themselves with civilians before leaving, though there was a possibility that some had remained. Malian soldiers on Diabaly's outskirts set up roadblocks and checked identify papers of travelers.
"The reason this took so long, and what prevented the French planes from completely destroying these people (Islamists) is that they were hiding among the population," said Gaoussou Kone, 34, the head of a local youth association. "In order to avoid human loss, the French were not able to strike them directly."
Associated Press reporters saw French troops in camouflage uniforms take up positions in front of a Malian military camp in the town.
Islamists had seized the town just days after the French began their military operation on Jan. 11. Diabaly marked the southernmost town under the control of the Islamists.
Malian military officials reported late Saturday that they had retaken the town after Islamists fled, but French officials later said Sunday that the town had not been recaptured.
On Monday, about 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes made their way to Diabaly.