By Richard Valdmanis
DIABALY, Mali (Reuters) - Residents of Diabaly feared for their lives when French air strikes pounded their small town in central Mali, shaking their homes and turning the pick-up trucks of Islamist fighters into burning, twisted metal.
Despite that, they are grateful to France.
Children in bare feet and tattered T-shirts now play among the trucks' charred wreckage -- a visible reminder that the town was the focus of the French-led war against al Qaeda-linked rebels bent on carving an Islamist state out of the Sahara.
"I've told the children not to play with the trucks but I can't stop them," said Adama Nantume, a retired farmer whose home was blackened by the laser-guided air strikes that landed meters from his door. "Everyone here is happy about what the French have done."
Diabaly, once a buzzing trading and agriculture hub, is now a forward headquarters for French troops piling into Mali since the Islamist rebels launched a dramatic offensive toward the capital in early-January.
French air strikes halted the Islamist advance and Paris has vowed to rid Mali's north of the militants for fear they will create a base for international attacks.
France says its military will leave once the Islamists are defeated and Mali is returned to stability, with the aid of an African force. But many Diabaly residents never want them to go.
"I hope that the French stay for eternity. If they leave, I will leave," said Alou Gindou, a 46-year-old driver. "If it were not for the French, we would not be sitting here today."
Many residents waved and roadside boutiques flew the tricolor flag as a column of French armored personnel carriers, jeeps and supply trucks trundled north along the route from the capital Bamako to reinforce Diabaly on Thursday.
THE GROUND SHOOK
Nantume was sitting beneath his mango tree when the convoy of Islamist rebels sped past toward the center of town on the evening of January 14, extending their reach south from their desert strongholds of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
"Everybody panicked and people began to flee," he said. "I went into my room and crouched in a corner. Bullets were flying everywhere and hitting the house."
He said the air strikes began not long afterward as night fell and lasted until the rebels melted away two days later.
"As the planes circled, the jihadists tried to hide their trucks and they hid some here next to my house. The ground was shaking, the air was filled will bullets and there were explosions. The inside of the house was incredibly hot. I thought I would die," he said massaging his palms nervously.
Wasted ammunition lay scattered in the dust alongside an unexploded rocket propelled grenade near Nantume's house.
Residents said they were amazed by the precision of the air strikes, which hit no civilians and left buildings in the maze of mud houses nearly untouched. A French officer said the air strikes were conducted by jets using laser-guided targeting.
Malian military officials said residents claimed to have seen Abu Zeid, a feared al Qaeda commander, among the Islamists that attacked Diabaly.
The cross of Diabaly's church, which served the minority Christian community, lay in the churchyard, torn from its perch by the Islamists before they fled.
Oumar Coulibaly, an unemployed resident of Diabaly, said life had become more difficult in the aftermath of the fighting.
"Villagers from around the region used to come to Diabaly to trade millet, fish, and cattle, but they have stopped. Many of our neighbors left and never came back."
He hoped French forces would stay to secure the town.
"The jihadists said this was a war about religion and that their enemies were the military and the French. But we know this is false. They brought us this war. It was the French who stopped it," he said.
(Editing by Daniel Flynn)