NIONO, Mali Islamist militants appeared Thursday to expand their control in central Mali, occupying two villages after government troops abandoned their positions.
Refugees and local officials said the Islamists who drove Malian troops from a garrison Monday in the town of Diabaly rolled into the village of Sokolo, to the northwest, without a fight Wednesday after government troops withdrew.
Rebels also took control of Dogofry, a village nine miles north of Diabaly, when government troops pulled out after Diabaly fell.
That left the administrative center of Niono as the government's most forward position, and the rallying point Thursday for a growing number of French ground troops who local officials anticipate may soon try to retake Diabaly.
"They had no choice," said prefect Seydou Traore, top administrator in the area, about government soldiers' decision to withdraw. "They cannot match the weapons the rebels have. We need help."
How soon a counteroffensive might come was unclear, however. Reports that French ground forces had fought insurgents at Diabaly were exaggerated, fleeing residents said, and the size of the French force a few hundred troops at most was smaller than the 1,000 or more Islamists that French officials in Paris have said are operating in the area.
Residents also said French airstrikes seemed to decrease in effectiveness and number.
During the day, the French are bombing from jets MiGs, the locals call them, after the Russian aircraft. At night, French helicopters attack targets at much closer range. French special forces, visible moving behind the Niono front lines during the day, may be identifying targets in night raids from the ground, but there has been no French infantry assault.
The air attacks are hurting the rebels, said a group of four villagers who fled Diabaly Thursday morning.
"I've seen them piling up the corpses for burial," said Aly Diarra, 30, who worked for an agricultural company. At least eight rebel vehicles had been destroyed, he said.
But the airstrikes have not dislodged the Islamists from their positions.
Fleeing villagers say the rebels have parked trucks next to houses or inside residential compounds. They usually have automatic weapons mounted on the back and engage French helicopters in firefights.
Still, the Islamists have not yet marched into the rapidly swelling French ground troops here. And without ground troops who can take on the insurgents, the French-led coalition is stuck for now.