Hopes expressed by French officials that the invasion of Mali would be relatively quick and painless took a major hit today, when the rebels that control the northern two-thirds of the country launched a counter-attack, trouncing Malian junta forces and occupying the southern town of Diabaly.
The attack on the town began overnight, and by afternoon French officials conceded that the town had fallen. Perhaps more disturbingly, the attacking rebels reportedly came into the town by way of neighboring Mauritania, suggesting the rebels’ sway extends beyond the borders.
Rebel spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha condemned France for the invasion and the use of air strikes against towns, saying they “should attack on the ground if they are men.” Hamaha went on to promise revenge against France for the air strikes against Gao, which reportedly killed dozens of people when they hit a fuel depot.
Diabaly is a psychologically important victory for the rebels, as it not only brings them closer than ever to the junta’s capital, but was also the site of a massacre of Muslim clerics just months ago by Malian troops.
The rebels’ ability to fight on a more or less equal footing with the junta’s troops suggests once again that far from the rag-tag group of insurgents France expected to find when it invaded, they are dealing with a significant force, and one which will not be easily dislodged.