Douentza residents Hamidou Dicko and Ousmane Togo survey
the remains of a hotel in Douentza. The hotel was used as a
base for Islamists and was hit by French air strikes.
The group of Islamist rebels occupying the dusty northern
Malian town of Douentza at the gateway to Timbuktu had been
slaughtering a cow to eat at a small hotel.
The next instant, they were caught in an explosive blizzard
of flying concrete and shrapnel.
"They ate no meat. Many were killed, maybe 40," said Hamidou
Dicko, a neighbour who had peered over his mud-brick wall at
the hotel - used by the rebels as a base - after the French
warplanes attacked late on January 12.
The French air strike against the Hotel N'douli, which once
served tourists visiting the Dogon hills or the fabled desert
trading town of Timbuktu some 200 km to the north, left
scattered limbs and shattered bodies in the courtyard.
The attack was just one of hundreds of French strikes that
have characterised the 18-day offensive; sudden, devastating
fire-power rained down from the skies that left surviving
rebels little option but to flee into the desert.
"The few survivors gathered the dead, put them in trucks and
fled," said Dicko.
The overwhelming French air power has facilitated rapid
advances by French and Malian troops. Islamist militants who
controlled Mali's mostly desert northern half for 10 months
have now vanished from the region's towns and villages.
The French-led offensive that has retaken a string of
insurgent-held towns, including Timbuktu and Gao, has cheered
most Malians who have greeted the French and government
soldiers as liberating heroes.
Under rebel occupation, many were forced to live under a
strict form of sharia Islamic law that imposed whippings and
beatings for offences such as smoking or listening to music.
But the hasty retreat by the insurgents into areas of bush
and desert, and to the rugged mountains further to the
northeast, has raised fears of a lingering guerrilla war.
French-backed Malian troops conducted house-to-house searches
in Gao and Timbuktu today, uncovering arms and explosives
abandoned by Islamist fighters that could have been used in
their insurgency against the government.
But many locations in areas now controlled by the Malian
army, including Douentza, remain near-deserted and edgy,
devoid of electricity. Soldiers patrol on pickups mounted
"Today, all the rebels have gone. We don't hear fighting,"
said Pastor Philippe Sagara, one of the few Christians in the
mainly Muslim town.
Sagara said he removed the cross and Bibles from his small
church during the rebel occupation, and rarely went outside.
"I worry that maybe they will come back in the night. I don't
talk about it, but I feel it in my heart," he said.
Residents said the French air strikes that forced the rebels
to flee Douentza narrowly missed killing a top Islamist
commander, Abu Dar Dar of the MUJWA group, who had left for
Gao just days earlier.
MUJWA was part of the Islamist rebel alliance occupying the
north that included al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM, and
a Malian group, Ansar Dine.
Malian military sources said that, while most major towns in
the northern region were now under the army's control,
pockets of fighters lurked in the countryside between them.
"We don't know what will happen, but for the moment we are
peaceful," said Douentza resident Boulker Ould Bilal.
"The French have bombed, and Douentza is free. We can smoke.
We can do what we want."