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France and Mali set aside colonial past to fight new common foe

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

A car displaying French and Malian flags drives on a road in the centre of Bamako on Jan. 19, 2013. Islamist rebels in Mali abandoned the central town of Diabaly on Friday after fleeing a French air strike, military sources said, while West African troops arrived in Bamako to take on the insurgents in Mali's north.


NIONO, Mali -- On the liberated streets of the Malian town of Niono, French flags haven't fluttered like they do today since colonial times. But the old imperial powers are now back -- and they are, for the most part, welcome.

"Vive la France!" shouted Emmanuel, a 64-year-old local doctor, as French supply vehicles move through the town on their way toward the front line. He remembers well how he celebrated when he heard that Mali had won independence from France in 1960. But today, he feels the same jubilation, and has bought a tricolor flag for $1 dollar to celebrate.

France has been accused of neo-colonialism for its intervention in Mali. It now has 2,000 troops on the ground attempting to seize control of the northern desert region from Islamist rebels who are suspected of creating a haven for al-Qaida terrorists to attack the West.

But when his town was threatened by an advance of jihadists, Emmanuel began to view "the old oppressors" with new eyes.

"They came to help us when no one else would, and for that we like them," he said.

The flags that hang from buildings, lorries and motorbikes in Niono are evidence that many people support the French operation to "save Mali" from an army of extremists who had come dangerously close to communities like this one.

On the outskirts of the desert, the fabled town of Niono typifies much of Mali's enchanting beauty. Its charming square and stunning mosque have endured countless wars to tell the story of a beautiful nation with a rich architectural heritage. This is the other side of a war-ravaged nation, which, tragically, seems likely to become the epicenter of the new global fight against terrorism.

Compare the drug traffic fueled economy and beatings of northern Mali to the friendly street trade and bustle of beautiful Niono and it becomes clear which lifestyle most people here prefer.

At the nearest hospital, in the provincial town of Segou, Dr. Saoussoub Camara admits that even hardened medics have succumbed to "a sense of nationalism." He leads us to a ward in the ramshackle complex, which has been devoted to military casualties.

Six weary Malian soldiers lie in their beds. They are badly bruised but not broken. Although some suspect that the French have underestimated the ferocity of their enemy, others are confident they will eventually succeed.

Eric Feferberg / AFP - Getty Images

A Malian man wears a French and a Malian flag on his head.

"With the help of the French we will beat the Islamists," said 30-year-old Sgt. Malik Dombia, who was shot in the leg by advancing militants.

"They deal drugs and buy guns -- they are not even proper Muslims. If I am asked to return to the front line to help my French comrades, I would not hesitate to say 'yes.'"

But 67-year-old Aboubacrine Dicko is less enthused by the French mission. As he lies on the ground under a tree, he struggles to move. He broke an arm and injured his legs as he raced to mount his donkey to join the exodus from the nearby town of Diabaly, which was overrun by Islamists, then bombarded by French fighter jets.

"The French bombing destroyed my home. They must end this soon or there will be resentment," he said.

But France has promised that its military operation will be swift. The people of Niono desperately hope so.

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