Malians watch a French soldier as he leaves a shop in the recently liberated… (Nic Bothma, European Pressphoto…)
DIABALY, Mali — The militants came with gifts of dates, milk, peanuts, cookies and plastic prayer beads, extolling Islam and promising townspeople they wouldn't hurt them. They took over houses, unloaded truckloads of ammunition, food and water and ordered families not to run away.
They took down the national flag from the school and replaced it with a black Islamic flag. They blasted the concrete cross off a church.
They wore turbans covering their faces like masks, but spoke gently, promising to pay for any damage they caused.
When not shooting, they slept, ate and prayed.
The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic fighters seized Diabaly in a dawn assault on Jan. 14, three days after France launched attacks on militants elsewhere in Mali to destroy what it called the threat of a new terrorist state in West Africa, one capable of exporting terrorism to Europe and beyond.
The militants' assault on this central Malian town laid bare the country's weak, shambolic army, which was in danger of ceding the entire country to the extremists. The Islamists had already seized the north, where they imposed a harsh form of sharia, or Islamic law, that included the hacking off of people's hands for relatively minor offenses.
Since then, the French military has made swift progress, with Islamists abandoning some of their strongholds, while airstrikes and fighting are reported in some towns.
Once the French started airstrikes on Diabaly, four days into the takeover, the militants quickly slipped away into the countryside. French troops were able to move in, to cheers from the residents, without a shot being fired.
However, the brief tenure of the militants in Diabaly hinted at their tactics: seize the town, dig in among the population of 14,000, use residents as a human shield, and melt away before they could be trapped. The episode underscores their ability to disappear in Mali's vast northern reaches, where they can unleash guerrilla attacks at will.
It suggests the difficulties lying ahead for a mission that the French have said will be brief.
Malian military officials warn that their army has little hope of containing the terrorist threat in the north after the French depart, even with the promised help of other African countries.
The quiet town of Diabaly, next to a narrow canal with swaying reeds and blossoming water lilies, seems an unlikely new front in the fight against terrorists. Families sit in the red dust under sprawling mango trees in their mud brick compounds while chickens peck, oxen chew their cud and donkeys roll in the dust nearby. The streets are littered with dried tree branches, hacked off by Islamists to camouflage their SUVs.
The militants' stunning dawn attack on Diabaly, launched days into the French campaign in Mali, came just as everyone supposed the Islamists were running away. Instead, it was the Malian soldiers who fled, as they had in earlier battles, some stripping off their uniforms and donning civilian clothes, residents said.
Rebels poured into the compound of Mohammad Sanogo, 32, at dawn. He fled with his family, ignoring rebels' commands to stay.
A day later, with the rebels firmly in control, a pale green Toyota Prado arrived, carrying a high level commander. Rebels parked the four-wheel-drive vehicle under a tree and carefully coated it with red mud for camouflage.
"Six bodyguards went with him wherever he went, like a president," said neighbor Mousa Koumary, 48, who said he recognized the commander from pictures on television. It was Abou Zeid, the Algerian-born hard-line commander of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, he said. Another neighbor, Gaousou Kone, 35, who came to collect his motorcycle from the compound, also said he recognized Abou Zeid, who was sitting with the Koran in his hand.
"When I saw who he was, I was very afraid," Kone said. "They told us not to be afraid and invited us to dine with them, but I was too scared." He said another rebel confirmed the commander's identity. The claims cannot be independently verified.
Barnabe Dakouo, 63, was sleeping when Islamists smashed down his front mud wall using an SUV. Outside, his compound was full of fighters.
"I was shocked and I couldn't count, but there were many. They were trying to shoot down the French planes."
In Issa Dembele's yard, with its sprawling mango tree offering generous camouflage, dozens of Russian or Ukrainian rockets and boxes of Chinese ammunition lay in piles, left behind when the rebels melted away into the night, four days after taking Diabaly.
"There were whites and blacks among them," Dembele said of the militants. Residents said the men were from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal, and spoke the local language as well as French, English and Arabic.
Hamidou Sissouma, a schoolteacher, evacuated his family but stayed in the yard with the rebels, his fear of them ebbing, day by day. They gave him prayer beads.