A motorcyclist waves his support as French troops in two armored personnel carriers drive through Mali's capital Bamako on the road to Mopti.

Mopti, Mali -

“France has earned our eternal gratitude,” the mayor of Mopti says, echoing residents who had feared the central Malian town would be the next to fall to advancing Islamist radicals.

Home to about 120 000 people and what used to be a vibrant tourist industry, with the bars and hotels that accompany it, Mopti is a mere 50 kilometres from Konna - which fell to al-Qaeda-linked fighters on January 10.

The seizure of Konna sparked panic in Mopti, about 630 kilometres north-east of the capital, Bamako. Hotels and businesses closed shop and many people fled in advance.

But the capture of Konna sparked a military intervention by former colonial ruler France which halted the rebel advance, bringing relief to locals on knife-edge.

Idraogo Mamadou, making tea on a dusty road, said: “We were bracing to become slaves to these people. They are not motivated by religion at all. They are bandits who are only seeking money.”

A hotel owner whose establishment is on the banks of the Niger river was one of the few to stay put.

“When Konna fell, it was total panic here,” said the hotel owner, a Christian in a majority-Muslim country. “All those who had a car, or had money, fled. There wasn't a drop of petrol in the gas stations and the road to Bamako was completely choked.”

His hotel has been closed for about a year and 30 of his workers have been dismissed following the Islamist sweep across northern Mali in the wake of a March 22 military coup. Only 10 employees remain on the payroll.

“I was really scared because these bearded men do not like Christians,” he said.

“But I stayed up. I went across the town to take off all signs directing travellers to the hotel. I have not replaced them.

“We know that when they arrive, the first places they attack are bars, restaurants and hotels. They are very nasty.”

Idrissa Diakite, 32, was too poor to flee but simply closed his kiosk, locked himself inside the house and “prayed to God”, the roadside grocer said.

“People from Konna were calling us, speaking of big battles,” he said.

“All the officials had fled because the Islamists are cruel with them,” he added. “So when (French President Francois) Hollande sent his soldiers, it was a great relief.”

The French helping hand was a turning point for Mayor Omar Bathily.

“Before this I was anti-French.... The whole question of visas, the humiliation inflicted on Malians in France. But now it's over. For all my life, I will say 'Thank you and long live France!'“

The sentiment is common across the government-controlled south. The French flag - in both large and small versions - is selling like hotcakes in the capital Bamako.

The head of Mali's chief Muslim group has come out in strong support of the French-led campaign, an important voice in a country whose population is 90-percent Muslim.

Mahmoud Dicko said the offensive was “not an aggression against Islam,” adding: “It was France that came to the rescue of a people in distress who had been abandoned by the Muslim countries.”

Mali's crisis erupted when the nomadic Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalised by the government, launched a rebellion a year ago and inflicted such humiliation on the Malian army that it triggered a military coup in Bamako in March.

The Tuaregs allied with Islamist groups including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and seized control of huge swathes of territory including the main northern towns of Gao, Kidal and fabled Timbuktu.

The Islamists soon chased out their more secular Tuareg allies and began imposing an extreme form of sharia, or Islamic law, flogging, amputating and sometimes executing violators.

Their success in seizing a vast stretch of desert territory raised fears they could use northern Mali as a base to launch attacks on the region and beyond. - Sapa-AFP