(MENAFN - Arab News) Militants may have fled towns they held in northern Mali after a French-led offensive but locals fear they could return anytime as the soldiers advance, leaving them vulnerable.
The unprotected grey zone stretches from Niono, a central town 400 km northeast of the capital Bamako to Timbuktu, a historic city wrested back from the militants on Monday that is 1,000 km north of Bamako.
No soldiers remained in towns along the road and the militants, scattered near the Mauritanian border could easily slip back, residents say. "We are scared because there are no troops," said Ousmane Diallo, a 37-year-old mechanic from the village of Lere, about 270 km from Niono. "I hope the Islamists don't come back to cause damage."
The militants occupied this area in February and held sway until Jan. 20, when they were chased out by French and Malian troops.
On Jan. 11, Paris launched a military offensive in its former colony in west Africa to flush out a triad of Al-Qaeda-linked militants from an area the size of Texas they were holding for 10 months.
A team of AFP journalists saw that villages and towns on the route between Timbuktu and Niono were essentially empty although there was little trace of combat.
No soldiers were seen for hundreds of kilometers.
The village of Lere is one of the rare areas which is not deserted.
"Ninety percent of the people fled on Jan. 26 last year after the first attack on Lere by the MNLA", or Azawad National Liberation Movement, said the mechanic Diallo.
The MNLA rebellion launched in January 2012 inflicted such humiliation on the Malian army that it triggered a military coup in Bamako. In the ensuing political vacuum, the central government lost control of the north to the insurgents who were fighting alongside radical militants.
The Tuaregs' alliance of convenience with the Islamists quickly disintegrated and the Islamists began ruling the territories under their control like a particularly brutal medieval emirate.
Lere came under full control of the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in June.
They did not carry out executions as in other strongholds, but freely administered whippings, locals said.
"The Islamists carried out all their follies apart from theft and murder," said Diallo.
Bent by his years, Al Hassan Ag Mowloud said he had lost all his possessions "in the last two weeks" when a French air strike on an Islamist outpost near his house burnt it down to the ground.
"Food, money, everything is gone. I have no clothes. And I am hungry," he said.
The former militant headquarters which earlier was a base for the Malian army in better times is a mass of rubble. Locals say there are bodies rotting underneath.
"The pressing need now is to get the people go back to their jobs, for them to find their cattle which got lost in the bush, to retrieve their stolen ploughs, and to kick-start the economy," said the top local official of Niono Seydou Traore.
"In the short-term we need food... the humanitarian situation is catastrophic," he said. "Sixty percent of the residents have returned to their homes."
As French-led troops continue their advance elsewhere, the fear of being exposed to Islamist reprisals is also felt in Niafounke, about 370 km northeast of Niono, where only a handful remain after its takeover by the insurgents. "We are greatly concerned that the Islamists will come back," said Mohammar Traore, who is in his fifties.
"There is nobody here, no mayor, no soldiers," he said. "We are alone."