French push north, seize key airport and bridge in Mali
French special forces took control of an airport and bridge in Gao, a rebel-held town in northern Mali. The offensive could indicate France's acceleration into rebel strongholds.
French special forces in¬†Mali¬†with air support on Saturday seized the airport and a key bridge over the Niger River at the¬†Islamist¬†rebel-held¬†stronghold of Gao¬†as¬†France¬†accelerated its ground offensive against al Qaeda-allied fighters.
"The rebels have melted in to the local population. There is harassment. The operation is still under way. It is a bit complicated," a French officer in¬†Mali, who asked not to be named, told Reuters, referring to the assault on Gao.
France's Defence Minister¬†Jean-Yves Le Drian¬†announced the seizure of the airport and bridge at Gao, the largest town in¬†Mali's Saharan north which was occupied last year by a coalition of¬†Islamist¬†groups including al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM.
France's defence ministry initially gave few details of the operation at Gao, but there were unconfirmed reports from Malian sources that it involved French paratroops.
The French officer said the attacking French forces were facing "harassment" attacks but no solid line of resistance.
The speed of the French action at Gao suggested French and Malian governmnent troops intended to drive aggressively into the north of¬†Mali¬†in the next few days against other¬†Islamist¬†rebel-held towns, such as Timbuktu and Kidal.
For two weeks, French jets and helicopter gunships have been harrying the retreating Islamists, destroying their vehicles, command posts and weapons depots. The French action had already halted a sudden¬†Islamist¬†offensive launched in early January that had threatened¬†Mali's southern capital Bamako.
A French defence ministry statement quoted minister Le Drian as saying that many of the¬†Islamist¬†fighters' vehicles and logistics bases had been destroyed.
AU officials say AFISMA is severely hampered by logistical shortages and needs airlift support, ammunition, telecoms equipment, field hospitals, food and water. It also required training to operate in¬†Mali's desert and arid mountains.
So far, only around 1,200 soldiers of the African force, to be mostly comprised of troops from neighbouring West African nations, have arrived in¬†Mali.
The¬†United States¬†and¬†Europe¬†strongly back the U.N.-mandated¬†Mali¬†operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical¬†Islamist¬†jihadists using the country's inhospitable Saharan north as a launch pad for international terrorist attacks.