French forces fighting Islamist rebels in Mali seized the airport and a bridge at the rebel bastion of Gao on Saturday, the biggest military success so far for an offensive against al Qaida-allied insurgents occupying the country’s north.
The United States and Europe back the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadi using the West African state’s inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.
In their overnight advance on Gao involving special force troops backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships, the French killed an estimated dozen Islamist fighters without suffering any losses or injuries, the French army said.
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 were at the gates of Gao, the largest northern town held by the Islamists, came as African states struggled to deploy a planned 6,000-strong intervention force in Mali, known as AFISMA, under a U.N. mandate.
French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said French forces were still coming under fire from rebels inside Gao.
“At the moment, there are still contacts, some harassment operations by terrorist groups who are firing in the direction of the airport from residences or seeking to blend in with the population,” Burkhard told Reuters.
He said both the bridge and airport runway were undamaged.
In Paris, the French Defense Ministry said that Malian and French troop reinforcements were being sent and that troops from Chad and Niger, who have experience in desert warfare, would also be flown in shortly to Gao.
Read More: Reuters