NIONO, Mali — Islamist militants appeared Thursday to have expanded their control in central Mali, occupying two villages after government troops abandoned them.
Refugees and local officials said that the Islamists, who on Monday drove Malian troops from their garrison in the town of Diabaly, on Wednesday rolled into the village of Sokolo, nine miles northwest of Diabaly, without a fight.
The rebels also took control of the village of Dogofry, nine miles north of Diabaly, when government troops pulled out.
That left Niono, the administrative center for the area, as the governments most forward position and the rallying point on Thursday for a growing number of French ground troops who local officials anticipate may soon mount a push to retake Diabaly, 40 miles to the north.
"They had no choice but to withdraw," local prefect Seydou Traore, the top administrator for the area, said about the government soldiers decision to withdraw southward. "They cannot match the weapons the rebels have. We need help.
How soon a counteroffensive might come was unclear. Reports that the French ground forces had engaged in fighting with insurgents at Diabaly were exaggerated, fleeing residents said, and the size of the French force, numbering a few hundred troops at most, was smaller than the 1,000 or more Islamists that French officials in Paris have said are operating in the area.
Residents also reported that French airstrikes appear to be decreasing in both effectiveness and number.
During the day, the French are bombing from jets MiGs, the locals call them, after the Russian aircraft. At night, French helicopters attack targets at much closer range. French special forces, visible moving behind the Niono front lines during the day, may be identifying targets in night raids from the ground, but there has been no French infantry assault.
The air attacks are hurting the rebels, said a group of four villagers who fled Diabaly Thursday morning.
"Ive seen them piling up the corpses for burial," said Aly Diarra, 30, who worked for an agricultural company. At least eight rebel vehicles have been destroyed in the bombardments, he said.
But the airstrikes have not dislodged the Islamists from their positions, they said.
Fleeing villagers say that the rebels have parked their trucks next to houses or inside residential compounds, sometimes punching a hole in the wall to enter if necessary. Those trucks usually have automatic weapons mounted on the back and engage with the French helicopters in firefights. Sometimes, the houses are damaged in the process.
Still, the Islamists, although successfully shaking off the French air power, have not yet marched into the rapidly swelling French ground ranks here nor, many here feel, are they likely to do so.
In the absence of ground troops who can take on the insurgents, however, the French-led coalition also is stuck at least for the moment.
The first contingent of West African troops, a group of about 100 soldiers from Togo, arrived in Malis capital, Bamako, and there were reports that troops from three other African nations, Nigeria, Niger and Chad, would arrive in the coming days.
But whether they will be ready for battle soon is an unanswered question. The initial plan for those troops, before the French intervention, called for months of training to make them battle ready.
The French, however, have only another four or five months before seasonal rains will halt major ground operations until the fall. And the longer the wait, the longer the Islamists have to prepare, becoming familiar with the local geography and building connections to the mostly hostile civilian population.
Residents say the Islamists seem to be trying hard not to antagonize the local residents.
"The rebels, they are not damaging anything. They dont touch anyone," said Seyba Coulibaly, whose two wives and family are still in Sokolo.
They also say it wont take long for the Islamists to learn how to use the local landscape to their advantage. The area is made up of lush green rice paddies, irrigated by a grid-like canal system that the French began digging out for cotton production decades ago when Mali was a French colony. The intertwining canals have been expanded until the green butts up against the Sahara Desert. The result is that, rather than an open plain, the terrain resembles an asymmetrical city grid, with many possible and obscure twists and turns to get from one point to another.
There is little confidence among local residents that the routed Malian army will be of much use.
"What Malian army? Our army is nothing," a schoolteacher from Dogofry, Suleiman Diarra, spouted in a roadside rant to anyone who would listen. He said the Islamists advance had cut him off from his family, who are still inside rebel-held territory.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation focused on human rights. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @alanboswell