Radical Islamists have fled a key Malian town on foot following French air strikes.
The air attacks began after the militants seized Diabaly nearly a week ago.
Malian military spokesman Captain Modibo Traore said last night that soldiers had secured the town.
The departure of the Islamists from Diabaly marks a success for the French-led military intervention that began January 11 to oust the Islamists from northern and central Mali.
Earlier in the week the Malian military was able to retake another key town, Konna, whose capture had sparked the French intervention.
“The Islamists began leaving the town on foot yesterday heading east,” said a Malian intelligence officer. “They tried to hijack a car, but the driver didn’t stop and they fired on the car and killed the driver.”
French defence minister Jean-Yves Drian said France now had 2,000 troops in Mali.
He said France “could go beyond” the 2,500 troops initially announced for Mali and at full deployment, Operation Serval would involve around 4,000 troops in the region.
Meanwhile, France’s foreign minister said “our African friends need to take the lead” in a military intervention to oust extremists from power in northern Mali, though he acknowledged it could be weeks before neighbours were able to do so.
Laurent Fabius spoke at a closely-watched summit in Ivory Coast focusing on ways that African forces can better help Mali as France’s military intervention there entered its second week.
“Step by step, I think it’s a question from what I heard this morning of some days, some weeks, the African troops will take over,” Mr Fabius said in Abidjan.
Neighbouring countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops to the operation, which is aimed at preventing the militants who rule northern Mali from advancing further south toward Bamako, the capital.
While some initial contributions from Togo, Nigeria and Benin have arrived to help the French, concerns about the mission have delayed other neighbours from sending their promised troops so far.
Funding for the mission is also an issue. Mr Fabius said that a donor summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on January 29 “will be a key event”.
“I am calling all partners of African development to come to Addis Ababa and to make generous contributions to this work of solidarity, peace and security both for the region and the continent,” he said.
Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara said yesterday that Mali’s neighbours must work together to eradicate terrorism in the region. “No other nation in the world, no other region in the world will be spared” if large swathes of the Sahel are allowed to become a ’no man’s land’,“ he said.
At yesterday’s meeting, leaders were sorting out a central command for the African force, a French official said.
Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies with the majority of its 15.8 million people practising a moderate form of Islam.
That changed last March, following a coup in the capital which created the disarray that allowed Islamist extremists to take over the main cities in the distant north.
The United Nations refugee agency said on Friday that the fighting in Mali could force as many as 700,000 people to flee their homes in the coming months.