FRENCH forces have taken control of the airport and a key bridge in the Islamist stronghold of Gao, France’s defence minister said yesterday.
It is their first significant advance into the heart of territory held by al-Qaeda-linked extremists.
It came just two weeks after former colonial power France launched a military offensive to drive Islamists from northern Mali.
The Islamists first seized control of Gao and two other provinicial capitals – Timbuktu and Kidal – in April last year in the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the distant, southern capital, Bamako.
French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced yesterday French and Malian troops had destroyed vehicles and bases belonging to the jihadists. The French and Malian forces launched the air and land operation to take Gao’s bridge and airport under the cover of darkness overnight, said Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a military spokesman in Paris.
They came under fire early yesterday from rebels in Gao and continued to face sporadic “harassment” in the afternoon, he added. He had no estimate of casualties. Phone networks have been down in Gao for days, making it impossible to corroborate events.