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Residents abandon homes in northern town

Malians are caught in the conflict between Islamists and government troops. One woman fleeing Diabaly said Islamists who had taken the town hid in civilian homes when the French airstrikes began. French forces held off a full ground assault there as a result. (SOUNDBITE) (Bambara) UNNAMED DISPLACED WOMAN FROM DIABALY, SAYING: "Islamists travel in pick-up trucks and when they hear the noise of the planes they run and hide inside our houses. We realised that we were not safe. That's why we decided to leave. We left with heavy hearts. The only things we have are what we are wearing now." The UN refugee agency says up to 700,000 people could be uprooted by the violence in the coming months. This as French forces realise the Islamist militants are better trained and equipped than they first thought, according to UN diplomats. The Islamist coalition, which includes al Qaeda's North African wing, has been united by the threat of foreign military intervention. A first batch of Nigerian troops left on Thursday to beef up Malian, French and Togolese troops. More African forces are due to join a UN-mandated African mission. A total of 2,500 French troops are expected in Mali but Paris is keen to hand over to the UN-backed regional force.

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