After French push, Mali fight moves north

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reporting from Diabaly, where a week ago the town was on the front line during the conflict with Islamic militants.
CBS News

DIABALY, Mali -- Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday and warned about the new terrorist threat in North Africa's Mali.

"But this is going to be a very serious ongoing threat," she said. "We are in for a struggle. But it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven."

Fighters linked to al Qaeda have taken over parts of Mali. The French sent in troops to push them out, and the U.S. Air Force is helping to carry the French troops there.

Mali's military no match for Islamic militants
Video: Mali Conflict
U.S. begins transporting French troops to Mali

Malians along the road cheered and waved France's flag as a convoy of hundreds of French soldiers and their weapons drove toward the town of Diabaly. To them, these are the troops who chased out the al Qaeda-linked rebels away.

Life is now starting to return to normal. Diabaly was the closest the Islamic militants got to the capital Bamako less than 300 miles south. But they only stayed for four days before the French government launched its attack.

In Diabaly, there was never any ground combat. The French simply hit the Islamists from the air and destroyed their equipment and ammunition. That was enough to get them on the run.

It was welcome news for the Boubakar family. We met them on the road with a cartful of household goods.

The extremists had marched Sinanta away at gunpoint and tried to pump him for local knowledge. He acknowledged that he's afraid for his family that the Islamists will come back.

His wife Cobbla said she's still having nightmares. In the end the fighters let him go and the whole decided to head up the road where they know there will be troops to protect them.

There are Malian troops who, along with the French, are occupying the town that just a week ago was the front line. They say the Islamic fighters have retreated, but they're not taking any chances.

And the people are grateful. They say the fighters may have disappeared, but the threat will remain until they are certain they're never coming back.

As for what's next in the French military campaign, the French are securing an area, but they are still actively fighting up north where there are believed to be much larger concentrations of Islamic militants, especially in two big cities. There is active bombing up there, but there is an information blackout -- no LAN lines, no cell phones, no Internet -- so it's very hard to know exactly how fast they are or not advancing.

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."