DOUENTZA, Mali (Reuters) - The group of Islamist rebels occupying this dusty northern Malian town at the gateway to Timbuktu had been slaughtering a cow to eat at a small hotel.
The next instant, they were caught in an explosive blizzard of flying concrete and shrapnel.
“They ate no meat. Many were killed, maybe 40,” said Hamidou Dicko, a neighbor who had peered over his mud-brick wall at the hotel - used by the rebels as a base - after the French warplanes attacked late on January 12.
The French air strike against the Hotel N‘douli, which once served tourists visiting the Dogon hills or the fabled desert trading town of Timbuktu some 200 km (125 miles) to the north, left scattered limbs and shattered bodies in the courtyard.
The attack was just one of hundreds of French strikes that have characterized the 18-day offensive; sudden, devastating fire-power rained down from the skies that left surviving rebels little option but to flee into the desert.
“The few survivors gathered the dead, put them in trucks and fled,” said Dicko.
The overwhelming French air power has facilitated rapid advances by French and Malian troops. Islamist militants who controlled Mali’s mostly desert northern half for 10 months have now vanished from the region’s towns and villages.
The French-led offensive that has retaken a string of insurgent-held towns, including Timbuktu and Gao, has cheered most Malians who have greeted the French and government soldiers as liberating heroes.
Under rebel occupation, many were forced to live under a strict form of sharia Islamic law that imposed whippings and beatings for offences such as smoking or listening to music.
But the hasty retreat by the insurgents into areas of bush and desert, and to the rugged mountains further to the northeast, has raised fears of a lingering guerrilla war.
French-backed Malian troops conducted house-to-house searches in Gao and Timbuktu on Tuesday, uncovering arms and explosives abandoned by Islamist fighters that could have been used in their insurgency against the government.
But many locations in areas now controlled by the Malian army, including Douentza, remain near-deserted and edgy, devoid of electricity. Soldiers patrol on pickups mounted with guns.
“Today, all the rebels have gone. We don’t hear fighting,” said Pastor Philippe Sagara, one of the few Christians in the mainly Muslim town.
Sagara said he removed the cross and Bibles from his small church during the rebel occupation, and rarely went outside.
“I worry that maybe they will come back in the night. I don’t talk about it, but I feel it in my heart,” he said.
Residents said the French air strikes that forced the rebels to flee Douentza narrowly missed killing a top Islamist commander, Abu Dar Dar of the MUJWA group, who had left for Gao just days earlier.
MUJWA was part of the Islamist rebel alliance occupying the north that included al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM, and a Malian group, Ansar Dine.
Malian military sources said that, while most major towns in the northern region were now under the army’s control, pockets of fighters lurked in the countryside between them.
“We don’t know what will happen, but for the moment we are peaceful,” said Douentza resident Boulker Ould Bilal.
“The French have bombed, and Douentza is free. We can smoke. We can do what we want.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher