Islamists make 'tactical retreat', fleeing key Mali towns

Mali towns

Islamist fighters battered by French aerial attacks have fled most cities they had held in northern Mali, residents have said, what a spokesman for one jihadist group called a "tactical retreat."

After heavy bombing by French Rafale fighter planes on Sunday, the jihadists were nowhere to be seen in Gao, one of the main cities in northern Mali to have fallen under Islamist control in April.

"We are free. We haven't seen a single mujahideen here today (Monday). They left the town and the leaders are hiding," said a resident reached by telephone from Bamako, speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday.

Earlier residents and a security source reported at least 60 insurgents killed in the assault.

In the fabled city of Timbuktu, where some of the worst abuses under Islamist control have taken place, their fighters reportedly fled in anticipation of an attack, as no strikes have yet been reported in the desert city.

"The mujahideen have left, they are really scared," said a resident in the town, a world heritage site where the jihadists have destroyed centuries-old monuments which they considered "idolatrous".

The French army launched its offensive on Friday, a day after the Islamists seized the central town of Konna in a push south towards Bamako.

The operation came after months of hesitation over an African intervention force.

After the airstrikes pushed the insurgents from Konna they retreated to Douentza, 800 kilometres from Bamako which they have held since September.

But by the time the French warplanes struck Douentza yesterday, residents reported the jihadists had already fled.

The spokesman for one of the rebel groups Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), Senda Ould Boumama, said the withdrawal was merely a "tactical retreat", in comments published on Mauritanian news website Alakhbar.

"Our movement's fighters have retreated from the towns and positions they occupied ... with the goal to limit damage among unarmed civilian populations," he said.

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