A withdrawal for purely cat-and-mouse reasons seemed unlikely. By pulling back, the rebels abandoned their checkpoints around the communities, opening the floodgates for a stream of relieved residents who hadn’t yet found a way to escape. Without a civilian population around them, the rebels would have become far more exposed to the aerial attacks.
Fleeing residents had been reporting for days that rebels were parking their gun-mounted trucks in residential areas in hopes that the possibility of killing civilians would deter the French. But as civilians fled, the tactic’s utility was waning.
The French probably were aided in their aerial assault by special forces on the ground, operating with the advantage of night-vision technologies.
Four armored vehicles of French special forces rolled out north of Niono toward Diabaly on Thursday evening, said a local official, who asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorized to speak on military matters. The official said the special forces didn’t return and were manning a covert forward operating base.
Niono has been under a strict 6 p.m. curfew since the fall of Diabaly. On Friday, after the news of the rebels’ Diabaly retreat, the local state radio made a special announcement to remind residents to stay indoors after 6 p.m. There would be military movements during the night, the announcement said. As dusk fell, French vehicles closed the road that leads to Niono from the south.
Residents who’d escaped from rebel-held Diabaly seemed surprised at the sudden reversal. Many had predicted in the preceding days that the rebels wouldn’t be dislodged easily or soon.
At noon Friday, one group that had sneaked out of Diabaly the night before and just arrived in Niono had no idea about the events.
"Maybe we can defeat those people, but it will be very difficult," said Fousseni Traore, 19. "I’m the son of a soldier. I’ve never seen such powerful weapons. One of them, when it shoots, the earth seems like it will collapse."
"We will need outside help," he said, unaware that the town he’d just left was now, for the moment, back in government hands.
McClatchy special correspondent Frederic Castel contributed from Paris.