Jan 27 2013
French and Malian troops have held a strategic bridge and the airport in the northern town of Gao as their force also pressed toward Timbuktu, another stronghold of Islamic extremists in northern Mali.
The advances come as French and African land forces also make their way to Gao from neighbouring Niger in a bid to defeat the al Qaida-linked Islamists who seized control of northern Mali more than nine months ago.
The French military announced that it had liberated the town of Gao, though other officials said the fight to control it was still in progress.
Lt Col Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defence minister, said that the forces were patrolling Gao and had maintained their hold over the bridge and airport overnight.
The advance on Gao marked the biggest achievement yet for the French and Malian troops since they began their operation to oust the Islamist radicals two weeks ago. It remains unclear, though, what kind of resistance the forces will face in the coming days.
The French special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire from "several terrorist elements" that were later "destroyed," the French military said in a statement on its website.
In a later press release entitled "French and Malian troops liberate Gao" the French ministry of defence said they were bringing back the town's mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to the Malian capital of Bamako far to the west. However, a city official said that coalition forces so far only controlled the airport, the bridge and surrounding neighbourhoods.
And in Paris, a defence ministry official clarified that the city had not been fully liberated, and that the process of freeing Gao was continuing. Swooping in under the cover of darkness, the French and Malian forces faced sporadic "acts of harassment" during the day, said Col Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al Qaida-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago along with the other northern provincial capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu.
The rebel group that turned Gao into a replica of Afghanistan under the Taliban has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.