Gao city retaken

2013-01-27 13:44

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Konna - French and Malian troops regained control of the airport and bridge of the crucial, northern city of Gao on Saturday, marking their biggest advance yet in their bid to oust al-Qaeda-linked extremists who have controlled northern Mali for months, military officials said.

The move comes just two weeks after France launched its military offensive in support of the shaky, central government of this former French colony. It is unclear what kind of resistance French and Malian troops will face in the coming days.

The French military said in a statement on its website that their special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire from "several terrorist elements" that were later "destroyed."

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 interviewed by telephone by The Associated Press said coalition forces so far only controlled the airport, the bridge and surrounding neighbourhoods.

Freeing Gao

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.

Both officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly on the matter.

Swooping in under the cover of darkness, the French and Malian forces faced sporadic "acts of harassment" during the day, said Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesperson in Paris. He had no immediate estimate on casualties.

Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al-Qaeda-linked fighters more than nine months ago, and the battle to retake the city is expected to be tough.

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.

His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.

30 bombs

The French assault began with the capture of the airport, a strategic landing strip that opens the way for easier sorties all over northern Mali.

The further capture of a major bridge leading into the town means that the jihadists "saw their means of transport and their logistics sites destroyed," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.

The operation in Gao comes at the same time as airstrikes in the two other provincial capitals held by the extremists - the cities of Timbuktu and Kidal, which like Gao fell to the rebels last April, during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the distant capital. Nearly 30 bombs have been fired from fighter jets over the past two days, said France's military in a communique.

The simultaneous aerial attacks also come at the same time that ground troops are carrying out a pincer movement, with French and African land forces heading to Gao from Niger, where Chad has sent a battalion.

The Pentagon said late on Saturday that Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has told Le Drian the US will aid the French military with aerial refueling missions.

Boost to air support

US aerial refuelling planes would be a boost to air support for French ground forces as they enter areas of Mali that are controlled by al-Qaeda-linked extremists.

The US was already helping France by transporting French troops and equipment to the West African nation.

French and Malian forces are also heading to Timbuktu, via the central corridor that leads straight north from the central Malian city of Segou, via the recently recaptured town of Diabaly.

- SAPA
Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  mali  |  west africa
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