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French, Malians oust Islamists from town

DIABALY, Mali — French troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through Diabaly Monday, winning praise from residents of the besieged town after Malian forces retook it with French help a week after radical Islamists invaded.

The Islamists also have deserted Douentza, which they had held since September, said a local official, who added that French and Malian forces arrived there on Monday, as well.

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The militants’ occupation of Diabaly marked their deepest encroachment into government-held territory, and Monday’s retaking of the town was a significant victory for the French-led intervention.

Diabaly fell into rebel hands Jan. 14. Residents said those who escaped fled on foot through rice fields.

‘‘We are truly really grateful to the French, who came in the nick of time,’’ said Gaoussou Kone, 34, head of a youth association. ‘‘Without the French, not only would there no longer be a Diabaly, there would soon no longer be a Mali.”

Islamists had seized Diabaly just days after the French began their military operation on Jan. 11. The offensive is aimed at stopping the radical Islamists from encroaching toward the capital in Mali’s south from their strongholds in the vast, desert north, where they have been amputating thieves’ hands and forcing women to wear veils for the past nine months.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from his country’s oldest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, opposed France’s intervention.

Speaking in Saudi Arabia, he said France’s actions would create a ‘‘new conflict hotspot’’ separating the Arab north of Mali from its African neighbors to the south. He said he would have preferred a ‘‘peaceful and developmental’’ intervention.

On Monday, about 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes made their way to Diabaly.

The Masked Brigade, behind the hostage crisis in Algeria, threatened more attacks if France does not leave Mali.

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