By Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO, Jan 16 (Reuters) - In the far-flung desert cities of northern Mali, civilians weary of the violent rule of Islamist rebels hope French troops can rout them but fear being caught in crossfire as fighters try to melt into the local population.
Several residents contacted by telephone in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, towns that are each home to a few tens of thousands of people, told Reuters that militants were keeping out of sight of roving French assault aircraft but could still put up a fight.
Having put Mali's army to flight nine months ago and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law in oasis towns they occupied across thousands of miles of Sahara, al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM and its allies from Mali's MUJWA and Ansar Dine have some local sympathisers. But many residents say they wish them gone.
"There is a great hope," one man said from Timbuktu, the ancient trading city 700 km (450 miles) northeast of the Malian capital Bamako. "We hope that the city will be freed soon.
"People are eagerly awaiting the arrival of ground troops."
Having abandoned established command posts and avoiding travelling in their familiar but easily targeted convoys of machinegun-mounted pickup trucks, rebels have occupied private homes, raising fears they may see civilians as human shields.
"The jihadists have left their usual buildings for other more discreet homes," the Timbuktu resident said.
Like all those who spoke from rebel-held areas, his name is withheld for fear of reprisals by rebel fighters whose rule has been marked by public amputations and executions. They have already accused some local people of spying for their enemies.
Timbuktu has yet to see air strikes, but at Gao, 300 km to the east and a bastion of the home-grown MUJWA militant group, French warplanes wiped out a training camp and weapons depot.
"The French air strikes did their job. They have hit the jihadists very hard and many of them have gone into hiding, some in the bush and others in abandoned houses," said one man based in Gao. "If there were ground troops, this war would end."
He said he had had to make a journey out of Gao to make a call since Islamist fighters had cut landlines in the town after accusing local people of giving their positions to the French.
The manager of a bus station in Zarma, a town just across the border in Niger and some 200 km south of Gao, said the only news coming out of that city came from the few drivers still willing to brave checkpoints manned by armed Islamist militants.
"The only word we get is from those drivers, because the phone is out of order now," said Abdourahamane Al Housseini. "All the lines have been cut off."
In Kidal, the northern stronghold of Ansar Dine's leader Iyad Ag Ghali, one local man told Reuters by telephone that the town was calm as most of the Islamists had fled into the nearby mountains that straddle the border with Algeria.
"We want to be done with this war as soon as possible," said a woman in Kidal. "If the French army fails, the Islamists will think they are invincible and will gain many more fighters."
The image of power the Islamists have projected to a local population long disenchanted with distant Malian governments in Bamako has gained them admirers: "I fear for the future," the woman in Kidal said.
"My 8-year-old boy jumps with joy whenever he sees Ansar Dine men in their vehicles. He told me he wants to be as strong as these men. I want him to go to school." (Additional reporting and writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Joe Bavier and Alastair Macdonald)