Malian troops retake central town after Islamist rebels flee

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FRENCH-backed government forces advanced into northern Mali yesterday, following up on a relentless round of airstrikes against Islamist rebels.

The al-Qaeda-allied insurgents were said to have retreated as Mali’s army moved towards their stronghold of Gao and recaptured the town of Hombori.

Malian officials said an offensive against Gao would be launched in the coming days. They said government troops entered Hombori late on Thursday.

Gao, with the other Saharan desert towns of Timbuktu and Kidal, has been occupied since last year by a militant alliance that includes al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), the North African franchise of the terrorist group.

“Our troops supported by French forces entered Hombori yesterday evening without any combat. The Islamists had already deserted the town,” a Malian military officer said.

Mali’s national radio said Hombori’s residents turned out to cheer government soldiers.

But in a sign the Islamist rebels could offer resistance, residents living south of Gao reported they had blown up a bridge on the main road that follows the river down to Niger. Two civilians were killed when their vehicle drove off the wrecked bridge, sources said.

As French and Malian troops push north-east through the farmland and scrub along the Niger river, hundreds of African troops are being deployed behind them, part of an African force intended to be the core of an international-backed offensive against al-Qaeda and its allies in north Mali. There are concerns this African force, expected to exceed 5,000 and comprising mostly of troops from west African states, lacks training, equipment and funding.

Heads of state meeting at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this weekend were expected to appeal for more international support, including from China.