French troops advance in Mali

French troops inch north in Mali as Islamists melt away.

A picture taken on April 24, 2012 shows Islamists rebels of Ansar Dine near Timbuktu, in rebel-held northern Mali. Picture: AFP

NIONO, MALI - French troops in armored vehicles advanced on Sunday towards a central Malian town abandoned by Islamist rebels after days of air strikes, moving cautiously for fear of guerrilla-style counterattacks by the al Qaeda-linked fighters.

Television showed the wreckage of the Islamists' white pick-up trucks, some mounted with heavy machine guns, lying charred and twisted among the mud-brick buildings of the village of Diabaly.

Commanders of French and Malian forces, who have set up their operations centre in the nearby town of Niono, some 300 km northeast of the capital Bamako, said the whereabouts of the Islamist fighters remained unclear.

"Our principal concern is that a section of the population may have joined the jihadists," said Colonel Seydou Sogoba, head of Malian military operations in the area.

"The war against the Islamists is not an easy one. They come in and mix with the local population," he said.

Some Islamist fighters had shaved off their beards and swapped their robes for jeans to blend in with local residents, he said.

France has deployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes have pounded rebel columns and bases for 10 days, effectively halting an Islamist advance on the riverside capital.

French intervention was aimed at stopping the loose coalition of Muslim militants from using Mali's north as a training ground and springboard for attacks in Africa and on the West.