DIABALY, Mali – Explosions rang out at 3 a.m. last week as the radical Islamists descended on the town of Diabaly, home to a Malian military camp. Residents cowering in their homes believed the Malian soldiers would protect them.
Instead dozens of Malian troops fled in fear, ripping off their uniforms and taking off on foot into the dark.
"We thought for sure the Malian army would hit back," said local resident Gaoussou Kone of the Jan. 14 attack. "We were surprised to learn that our soldiers ran away. There is no African country that is strong enough to fight these people on their own. They are too well-armed."
Returning to the central town Monday, after the Islamist extremists retreated, the Malian soldiers found the entrance to their military camp littered with charred cars and weapons destroyed by the French air strikes.
Inside, they found ransacked buildings which the Islamists had pillaged in search of food and weapons. Not even the cafeteria was spared, with pots and lids thrown about.
One thing the Islamists didn't take — the gris-gris, or talismans, that members of the Malian military wore for protection, but the army will need more than charms to effectively fight the rebels.
Security experts have long expressed concern about the weakness of Mali's military and its inability to contribute forcefully in the international intervention against the Islamist extremists, who are well-armed and determined fighters.
When a Tuareg rebellion erupted in northern Mali more than a year ago, Malian soldiers complained that those sent to fight in the harsh desert environment were not given sufficient supplies, including arms and food. The fighting claimed the lives of numerous soldiers. Then, after the military coup in March 2012, the Malian army gave little to no resistance as the Islamists seized the major cities of northern Mali: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
After holding northern Mali for several months, the Islamists went on the offensive again and seized the central Malian town of Diabaly on Jan. 14. But this time the French military was in Mali and began airstrikes later that evening. Residents say the Islamists fled the town later in the week.
The Malian soldiers would not have been able to recapture the city without French help, according to many residents, including Modibo Sawadogo.
"We are happy about the presence of (foreign) soldiers who can reassure us because without them our military wouldn't be able to return," he said.
However, Modibo Traore, a Malian army spokesman, asserted that the military is prepared for the challenge and will be aided by forces coming from Mali's neighbors.
"At each retaken city there will be African units who will be supporting the military in securing the city," he said. "At the same time, other soldiers are advancing to recapture other towns."
Military experts say that the Malian army is a weak partner.
"The Mali army is not up to the task of holding control of the country's cities on its own. It needs the French and the support of a big African force," said David Zounmenou, senior researcher for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. "It's extremely risky to rely on the Malian army.
"This African-led support mission — that will certainly be the backbone of the military presence that will take over for France," said Zounmenou. "Even then French air support will be needed."
The Mali army is weak for a number of reasons. After Mali suffered coups in 1968 and 1991, the government wanted to reduce the army's influence and to strengthen democracy, so the defense budget was reduced and its equipment became outdated, said Zounmenou. The Mali army became filled with people who were friends of the regime and seeking jobs, he said.
"The military coup in March 2012 was by mid-ranking officers, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who destroyed the command structure of the army. Many top officers of the army are still in jail," said Zounmenou. "The army is faced with considerable internal problems. It adds up to a situation in which the army is not well-trained or disciplined. It is ill-equipped for the current fight to regain northern Mali from the committed Islamist fighters."
Yet the Malian army now has the responsibility of holding the centers that have been retaken by the French. In Diabaly, after securing the town, the French military took off just as quickly as they arrived, leaving only the Malians late Monday in a column of at least seven armored vehicles along with journalists.
The Malians are again alone — and in charge of Diabaly. Some residents, though, wonder how safe they, in fact, are.
Mohamed Sanogo said: "I still don't understand the ease with which the Islamists were able to take my city."
Associated Press writer Andrew Meldrum contributed to this report from Johannesburg.