KONNA, Mali/PARIS (Reuters) – French and Malian forces fighting Islamist rebels took control yesterday of the rebel bastion of Gao, the biggest military success so far in an offensive against al Qaeda-allied insurgents occupying the country’s north.
The United States and Europe back the UN-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state’s inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.
In an overnight assault on Gao backed by French warplanes and helicopters, French special forces seized the town’s airport and a key bridge over the River Niger, killing an estimated dozen Islamist fighters without suffering any losses or injuries, the French army said.
“The Malian army and the French control Gao today,” Malian army spokesman Lieutenant Diaran Kone told Reuters.
The speed of the French action in a two-week-old campaign suggested French and Malian government troops intended to drive aggressively into the north of Mali in the next few days against other Islamist rebel strongholds, such as Timbuktu and Kidal.
There have been 30 French air strikes on militant targets around Gao and Timbuktu in the past 36 hours.
News that the French and Malian troops were at Gao, the largest northern town held by the Islamists, came as African states struggled to deploy their intervention force in Mali, known as AFISMA, under a UN mandate.
Regional army chiefs said yesterday that a total of 7,700 African soldiers would be dispatched, up from 5,700.
Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Guinea and Uganda are due to join the mission but it was not clear if progress had been made at meetings in Abidjan or Addis Ababa to overcome gaps in transport, equipment and financing.
French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said French forces had come under fire from rebel fighters inside Gao, but that both the bridge and airport runway were undamaged. In Paris, the French defence ministry said Malian and French troop reinforcements were brought in and that soldiers from Chad and Niger, who have experience in desert warfare, were also flown in.
These Malian and regional troops would have the task of securing Gao and its surrounding area, the ministry said.
To the west, French forces recaptured Lere, on the road to Timbuktu, and were advancing, a Malian military source said, asking not be named.