French and Malian ground forces continue their cautious push north, as the counteroffensive against al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebels in the north enters its second week.
Islamist rebels appear to have left the town of Diabaly, in Mali's middle belt, less than a week after they seized it as part of a bold southern offensive that brought the French airpower and ground troops into the fight alongside the Malian army.
Still, forces patrolling the area say they are proceeding with caution.
A French military officer told journalists Sunday that the situation in Diabaly remains unclear. He said the rebels are a very mobile and formidable enemy.
Malian colonel Seibou Sogoba said the Islamists could be trying to blend in with the local population.
He says war against Islamists is so difficult because they come and begin to mix with the population and then, little by little, certain parts of the population will adhere to their cause.
Al-Qaida-linked Islamist militant groups seized control of northern Mali in April, on the heels of a military coup in the south that further weakened the Malian army.
The Islamists began their surprise offensive southward on January 9, seizing the town of Konna, just 70 kilometers north of the government stronghold at Sevare. French ground troops are now in Sevare alongside the Malian army, protecting its strategically important airport.
The Malian army has since retaken Konna but says that it is still conducting thorough searches to fully secure the town.
The counteroffensive has sparked concern about reprisal attacks against civilians belonging to the lighter-skinned Arab and Tuareg communities of the north, who might be seen as supporters of the rebels.
Human Rights Watch said Saturday that it has received "credible reports about serious abuses committed by members of the Malian security forces against civilians, notably Tuaregs and Arabs, in and around the area of Niono," which is near Diabaly. HRW said those abuses included a few killings.
The Al-Carama Alliance of Arab Communities in Mali held a press conference in Bamako Sunday to call for national solidarity.
The alliance president, Mohamed Mahmoud El-Oumrany, says victory should not be sullied by unnecessary errors or acts of revenge that bring nothing to the war effort, and instead will just cast a shadow over the victory and make it harder to live together tomorrow.
Senegalese soldiers began arriving in Bamako Sunday as part of a slowly building regional intervention force intended to fight alongside Malian and French troops.
Mali's interim president, Diouncounda Traore, addressed the nation Sunday on the occasion of the 52nd anniversary of the creation of the army.
He called on Malians to stand united in their support of the army and to help soldiers in any way possible. He said this will likely be a "costly and exhausting" war, but also a necessary one to protect regional and global security.