French-backed Mali forces push towards rebel-held Gao
By Richard Valdmanis and Tiemoko Diallo
SEGOU/BAMAKO, Mali (Reuters) - French-backed government forces advanced into northern Mali towards the Islamist rebel stronghold of Gao on Friday, recapturing the town of Hombori and forcing al Qaeda-allied fighters to pull back under relentless French air strikes.
France sent troops and aircraft to its former colony two weeks ago to block a southward offensive by Islamists occupying Mali's north. French and Malian troops have been pushing forward on either side of the Niger River, securing several farming towns recaptured over the last week.
African Union leaders at a summit in Addis Ababa called on the United Nations to provide emergency logistics to allow a nearly 6,000-strong African ground force to deploy fully in Mali. The AU said this should be paid out of the UN budget.
Malian officials said government forces entered Hombori, about 160 km (100 miles) southwest of Gao, late on Thursday and said an offensive against Gao could take place in the next few days.
Gao, with the other Saharan desert towns of Timbuktu and Kidal, has been occupied since last year by an Islamist alliance that includes AQIM, the north African franchise of al Qaeda.
"Our troops supported by French forces entered Hombori yesterday evening without any combat. The Islamists had already deserted the town," a Malian military officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Mali's national radio said Hombori's inhabitants turned out to cheer the government soldiers.
South of Mopti, a Reuters reporter saw a large column of French armored vehicles and supply trucks rolling northeast along the main road in the direction of Gao. Continued...