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Calm Restored After Rebels Flee Malian Towns

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A reporter on the ground in northern Mali says most Islamist militants have fled the city of Gao since last week, when French warplanes bombed their positions.

The VOA reporter in Gao said Tuesday that some militants have been spotted in the area - driving in trucks or riding motorbikes or hiding out in trees. But he adds it is clear the Islamists are not numerous or organized enough to continue applying the strict Sharia law they imposed after taking control of the city last April.

Local youths have taken up smoking again, the VOA reporter says, and girls without head coverings can be seen in the streets.

The journalist in Gao says the French airstrike on Gao 10 days ago did not kill any civilians, but the city is suffering shortages of food and medical supplies because all deliveries from Niger and Algeria have been interrupted.

Gao has no communications links to the rest of the world. The reporter told VOA he had to travel 180 kilometers outside Gao to file his report.

French and West African military forces are expected to retake the city in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Malian forces are patrolling Diabaly, a town in central Mali where Islamist militants were beaten back Monday by French and Malian forces.

Residents in Diabaly, too, said the militants who formerly held power there have either fled or are attempting to blend in with civilians. The town is 400 kilometers north of the capital, Bamako.

The correspondent leading the VOA reporting team in Mali, Idrissa Fall, says calm is also returning to Douentza, a town militants had taken over in September.

Fall spoke with residents Tuesday who expressed relief that Malian forces and their allies are now in charge of local affairs.

"They confirmed that the Malian army, the French soldiers, they arrived yesterday morning at 9 a.m. and the whole population in Douentza went out celebrating their arrival," he reported.

French forces intervened in Mali one and one-half weeks ago, when fears were growing that militants who still control much of northern Mali were pushing toward the capital. The United States has helped the French intervention force in Mali with transportation and equipment.

ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc, is building a 3,300-troop force that will eventually take the lead in helping Malian forces push back rebels. Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday the U.S. military has flown five C-17 cargo flights into Bamako.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the terrorist threat in Mali has "global repercussions." In a speech to the General Assembly Tuesday, Mr. Ban said addressing the unrest in Mali and the Sahel region is one of his top priorities this year.

During the past few days, the secretary-general said, he had dispatched an advance team of U.N. multidisciplinary officials to Bamako as part of U.N. efforts to help stabilize Mali.

"My Special Representative for West Africa has been in close dialogue with the Malian authorities and our regional partners. Our humanitarian agencies are working to meet the growing needs of a crisis that has forced 350,000 people to flee their homes," he said.

Ban said the U.N. would work with its African and international partners to fully restore Mali's constitutional order and territorial integrity.

Article by VOA News