BAMAKO, Mali — Backed by French air strikes, Malian forces appeared close to recapturing a key central town in Mali where bands of al-Qaida-linked fighters had holed up, France's defense minister said Sunday.
The French military has spent the last nine days helping the West African nation of Mali quash a jihadist rebellion in its vast northern desert. The comments Sunday from Jean-Yves Le Drian, however, appeared to cast some doubt on local military claims that the town of Diabaly had already been recaptured from the Islamists.
The town of 35,000, which hosts an important military camp, was taken over by al-Qaida-linked militants last week.
"Right now, the town of Diabaly is not retaken," Le Drian told France-5 TV. "(But) everything leads us to believe Diabaly is going to head in the positive direction in the coming hours."
The French military said its fighter planes and helicopter gunships had carried out a dozen operations in the previous 24 hours – half of them to strike "terrorist vehicles." The report came late Sunday in a statement on the military's Web site.
Previously, Mali's military had claimed the government was back in control of Diabaly – a potential breakthrough in the French-led campaign to oust extremists there.
The contrasting accounts were emblematic of the confusion in the embattled West African country, where French forces opened an air campaign on Jan. 11 and have been building up troop levels to help restore government control in central and northeast Mali.
The zone around Diabaly remains blocked off by a military cordon and it is not possible to independently verify the information.
Video obtained by The Associated Press from Diabaly on Saturday showed burned-out vehicles, scattered bullets and several armored vehicles belonging to the Malian army lying abandoned and damaged along roadsides. Displaced residents and Malian officials described how Islamists fled the town on foot after days of French airstrikes that destroyed their vehicles.
For government supporters, the incursion signaled an alarming drive by the jihadists into central Mali – and closer to the capital of Bamako – from the base they have established in the country's vast northeast. The Islamists captured the Texas-sized northeastern expanse nine months ago, exploiting a power vacuum after a military coup in the distant capital.
Also Sunday, French forces extended their deployment northward from the central town of Markala, reinforcing their presence in the towns of Niono and Mopti, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman.
The French statement said some 400 troops from Nigeria, Togo and Benin had arrived Sunday in Bamako to help train an African force for Mali. Troops from Chad, who are considered hardened fighters familiar with the desert-like terrain of northern Mali, also arrived in Mali, Le Drian said.
Overall, Le Drian said the French-led campaign against the militants was making progress. He said he wasn't aware of any civilian casualties and said the air strikes had caused "significant" – though unspecified – losses among the jihadists, and only minor skirmishes involved French forces on the ground.
Still, as they work to root out the jihadists and secure local populations, French and Malian forces also have to contend with some villagers who are backing the rebels.
"The war against the Islamists is not at all easy and there's a very small part of the population which is helping their cause," said Col. Seydou Sogoba, the Malian force commander in the Niono region. "That is what is making the fight against them tough."
France, which has received logistical support from Western allies and intelligence from the United States, ultimately hopes that troops from West African regional bloc ECOWAS will take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country, a former French colony.
Neighboring African countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops but concerns about the French mission have delayed several nations from sending their promised troops.
A donors' conference for the U.N.-backed Mali mission is being held in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa on Jan. 29.
Andy Drake in Niono, Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
Mali is a vast, landlocked nation that straddles the Sahara Desert and whose borders touch Algeria to the north and Ivory Coast to the south, linking North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa. Mali also borders Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Mali's north is currently under the rule of radical Islamists, whereas the weak central government is in the country's south. The current fighting between French forces and the Islamists is taking place in the middle of the country in an effort to keep the militants from spreading further south toward the seat of power. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Two main groups now appear to be competing to govern northern Mali: Ansar Dine, which wants to see Sharia law brought to Mali, and separatist rebels who already have declared an independent state. (AP Photo)</em>
Mali is home to some 15.8 million people, about 1.62 million of whom live in the capital of Bamako. Here, men and women sometimes ride three to a motorcycle in a city where bikes have their own lanes on the bridges connecting Bamako, divided by the Niger River. Mali's population reflects a rich diversity of cultures including the Bambara, the Malinke and the Peul. The country's north is also home to Arabs and the Tuaregs, who have led a number of rebellions against the central government over the years. <em>Malian refugees walk on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mali is world-famous for its musicians, including the late Ali Farka Toure, as well as global exports Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, and Oumou Sangare. Before a spate of kidnappings carried out by al-Qaida's North Africa branch, the fabled city of Timbuktu was a popular tourist destination and the country hosted an annual music event called Festival in the Desert. Westerners also flocked to the stunning mud mosque of Djenne and the region known as Dogon Country, where guides bring people from village to village in a community long studied by anthropologists. <em>Malian musician Vieux Farka Toure, son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, performs on December 15, 2012 at the French Institute in Libreville. (ERIC BEAUDENON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mali is 90 percent Muslim, and the call to prayer regularly echoes across communities where prayer mats and beads are sold on the streets. The northern city of Timbuktu is a historically significant site of Islamic learning and today the city still has some 20,000-catalogued manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. The Islam followed by Malians for centuries is a moderate form, though extremists began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah last year across the north when they took over the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. <em>A Malian refugee sits on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
The Islamists have provoked international outcry by razing historic tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque in Timbuktu. They also have carried out public executions and amputations, as well as whippings for infractions ranging from possessing cigarettes to women going out without headscarves. Many women in southern Mali work outside the home and do not wear the veil, though polygamy is still common throughout the country. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. (AP Photo)</em>
Analysts worry that the al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali's north are using the vast, desolate region outside government control to prepare for attacks outside Mali's borders. Given the country's historical ties to France, the former colonizer, many Malians pass back and forth between the two countries. <em>Caption: Malian soldiers drive in the direction of Diabaly, on the road near Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou in central Mali, Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)</em>
Many Malians are subsistence farmers, raising millet, sorghum, rice and corn. However, the country's third-largest export after cotton and livestock is gold. <em>Caption: In this May 17, 2010 file photo, a boy in Sokolo, Mali rides a donkey cart. (AP Photo/ Martin Vogl, File)</em>
Mali slid into dictatorship after gaining independence from France in 1960, but then a 1991 coup led to elections the next year. Mali's then-president stepped down after the maximum two-term limit and Amadou Toumani Toure, known as ATT, was peacefully elected in 2002. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 11, 2012 file photo, Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Pankaj Nangia, File)</em>
Toure was just months away from the end of his term when mutinous soldiers overthrew him in a coup in March 2012. The coup leader nominally handed over power to a weak, interim civilian government but is widely believed to still be controlling the country. The turmoil has left Mali's military in disarray, raising questions about how helpful Malian soldiers can be during the French-led intervention. <em>Caption: Wives of the Red Beret, a military unit which was in charge of protecting former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure, hold signs reading '' Peace in Mali'' as they march in the streets of Bamako on July 16, 2012 to demand their husbands' release and the ''truth'' to be told on ''disappearances''. (HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is estimated to have the second-highest infant mortality rate, with only Afghanistan higher. Life expectancy is a mere 53 years, and only 20 percent of women can read and write. Malian women on average have about six children each, and it is not uncommon for children to accompany their parents into the fields to work at a young age or to be involved in the country's mining industry. <em>Caption: In this Monday, April 30, 2012 photo, Mariam Orgho, 3, looks at her mother, Coumba Seck, sister-in-law of Samba Bayla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)</em>