By Megan Duzor
Officials in Mali say French-backed government forces have retaken a second town that had been seized by Islamist militants.
Local officials say militants have been driven out of Diabaly, located about 400 kilometers northeast of the capital, Bamako. There was no immediate confirmation of the re-capture from Mali's military or French forces.
Earlier, the Malian army and French officials said Malian forces had retaken Konna, a town east of Diabaly.
"We would even say that the Malian army and the Islamist fighters are playing cat and mouse," said Bamako-based VOA correspondent Idrissa Fall, who added that pockets of resistance likely remain in Konna. Mali's army has previously reported military successes in Konna, but the claims are difficult to verify, because journalists have had difficulty accessing the city.
The militant takeover of the town last week prompted France to intervene in its former colony. The one-week-old counter-offensive by French and West African regional troops appears to have stopped the southward advance of the al-Qaida-linked fighters who still apparently control northern Mali.
Fall says Malians in the capital are cheering the arrival of French forces.
"People driving, on their cars you will see French flags, kids setting French flags on the streets. People you talk with, all of them are very happy with the military intervention," he said. "Even the political leaders who had been fighting since the coup, all of them now say, 'Thank you France.'"
French officials say 1,800 troops are now in Mali, and that the force, which will be increased to 2,500 in coming days, will remain in the country until the situation is stabilized.
West African military chiefs say 2,000 troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Togo will soon arrive in Mali as part of a United Nations-authorized force.
Fall said that once the troops arrive there is still much work that needs to be done to organize the forces, explaining there is a "need for a headquarters to be established so that ground operations can be carried out." He described coordination as essential to battling heavily armed Islamist forces know the terrain well and move around it easily.
Little information flows from towns in northern Mali because communication has been cut off, Fall added, apparent "acts of sabotage by Islamists who accuse local populations of complicity."
Meanwhile, leaders of the ECOWAS West African regional bloc are preparing for a summit in Ivory Coast on Saturday to discuss additional measures for resolving the crisis. Ahead of the meeting, ECOWAS commission chairman Desire Kadre Ouedraogo said the situation on the ground in Mali required immediate action.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said the U.S. is providing assistance to foreign forces in the region.
"We have deployed about 100 trainers to Africa," said Nuland. "They are traveling to Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo, and Ghana to discuss training, equipping and deployment needs of those countries."
Al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists seized control of northern Mali after renegade soldiers toppled the government in March, leaving a temporary power vacuum. The militants have since imposed harsh conservative Islamic law across the north.
As the foreign intervention entered its second week, new signs of a worsening humanitarian situation have emerged.
The U.N. refugee agency says it expects an increased wave of Malians to flee their homes in the coming months. An agency spokesperson said Friday it is preparing for 300,000 to be displaced inside the country and for 400,000 to leave for neighboring countries.