The Malian military gained control Monday of the central Mali town of Diabaly, a key advance in the battle against Islamist militants in the north.
The country's forces retook the town without ground assistance from the French troops in the country, a military spokesman said Sunday. The French military confirmed that it provided only air support.
The French are involved in the fight because Mali once was under the country's control and because Islamists have been threatening to turn the democracy into a haven for international terrorists.
Ethnic Tuaregs who had returned to Mali well-armed from fighting for late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi staged a military coup last year against the Malian government. Islamic extremists capitalized on the chaos, carved out a large haven in Mali's north and imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law. The Islamists banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also destroyed historic tombs and shrines.
Those events stoked fear among global security experts that Mali could become a new hub for terrorism.
And recent events regarding Mali have unfolding in harrowing ways. Mali is allowing France to use its airspace to take on insurgents, a move that purportedly angered militants, prompting some to storm a gas field in eastern Algeria and take hostages. That ended Saturday with 23 hostages dead and dozens of Islamist militants killed.
On Monday, French officials said Malian forces pushed the Islamists into the forest beyond Diabaly and have taken control of the city and another area, Douentza.
A CNN crew was in Diabaly Monday and were told by Malian and French forces that Islamists left after they were hit directly in one of their makeshift camps by the French and Malians. The scene after one battle included burned-out armored vehicles and a truck that at one point belonged to the Islamists.
A Malian officer, Col. Seydou Sogoba, told CNN that the Islamists were using sophisticated weapons like he had never seen before. He believes they originated in Libya.
As the news crew drove into town, the dusty streets in the extremely poor area were mostly empty except for military vehicles and French and Malian troops. Whatever trucks had belonged to the Islamist rebels were bombed and burned out. Destroyed high-caliber weapons were seen in the vehicles.
A French colonel, exhausted from fighting and who wished not to be named, told CNN that foreign fighters -- including some who are Algerian -- have been pushed out of the area.
Sogoba told CNN the fight against the rebels was very hard, but he is focused on "preserving the national integrity" of Mali.
The humanitarian crisis in Mali is stark, according to the Norwegian Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
"They cannot stay where they are due to the grave insecurity caused by the conflict," said Sebastian Albuja, the center's head of the Africa and Americas Department. "Yet the meager resources and the diminished coping abilities of the government and humanitarian actors means that they are faced with limited options."
Because Algeria has closed its borders, people in the north are increasingly heading to the desert, where they will face harsh conditions and real struggles over food and water with limited humanitarian assistance, the group said.
Many are fleeing on foot because they can't afford boats or buses, Albuja said, and even if they do make it, they get there only to find the roads blocked.
The group is especially concerned about women, children and the injured, who they've heard are too afraid to go to hospitals, believing hospitals will be bombed. The Norwegian center is very concerned about victims of rape as a weapon of war, he said.
French involvement began the day after militants said January 10 that they had seized the city of Konna, east of Diabaly in central Mali.
Paris-Match interviews Belmoktar
On Monday, the website of the French magazine Paris-Match published an interview with the spokesman for Moktar Belmoktar, the veteran jihadist behind the Algeria attack, who said the attack was "a 90% success because we managed to reach a strategic site protected by 800 soldiers with only 40 men."
France's "crusaders and Zionist Jews will have to pay for its attack on the Muslims of northern Mali," said the spokesman, Hacen Ould Khalil. "I hope France realizes that there will be dozens of Mohammed Merahs and Khaled Kelkal(s)."
Merah, believed to be a French national of Algerian descent, said he was a self-styled al Qaeda-trained jihadist. He was the chief suspect in a series of shootings, including an attack on a Jewish school, in France in 2012. He was killed in a police raid.
Kelkal was of Algerian origin and is believed responsible for a series of attacks on French soil in the 1990s.
The spokesman told the magazine that his group has contacted the French authorities and started negotiations.
"The goal was never to kill or hurt the hostages," he added.