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Malian forces make gains to reclaim town from rebels

A French soldier proclaimed victory from a tank in Niono as Malian forces fought to recapture a town from Al Qaeda-linked fighters.

ISSOUF Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

A French soldier proclaimed victory from a tank in Niono as Malian forces fought to recapture a town from Al Qaeda-linked fighters.

BAMAKO, Mali — Backed by French airstrikes, Malian forces appeared close to recapturing a key central town in Mali where bands of Al Qaeda-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 prevent the spread of 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.

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The town of 35,000, which hosts an important military camp, was taken over by 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 website.

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 Colonel 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.

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.

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