French, Malian forces capture Gao rebel stronghold

Sat Jan 26, 2013 4:33pm EST
 
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By Richard Valdmanis and Yann Le Guernigou

KONNA, Mali/PARIS (Reuters) - French and Malian forces fighting Islamist rebels took control on Saturday of the rebel bastion of Gao, the biggest military success so far in an offensive against al Qaeda-allied insurgents occupying the country's north.

The United States and Europe back the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.

In an overnight assault on Gao backed by French warplanes and helicopters, French special forces seized the town's airport and a key bridge over the River Niger, killing an estimated dozen Islamist fighters without suffering any losses or injuries, the French army said.

"The Malian army and the French control Gao today," Malian army spokesman Lieutenant Diaran Kone told Reuters.

The speed of the French action in a two-week-old campaign suggested French and Malian government troops intended to drive aggressively into the north of Mali in the next few days against other Islamist rebel strongholds, such as Timbuktu and Kidal.

There have been 30 French air strikes on militant targets around Gao and Timbuktu in the past 36 hours.

News that the French and Malian troops were at Gao, the largest northern town held by the Islamists, came as African states struggled to deploy their intervention force in Mali, known as AFISMA, under a U.N. mandate.

Regional army chiefs said on Saturday that a total of 7,700 African soldiers would be dispatched, up from 5,700.   Continued...

 
Malian soldiers ride in a Malian army pickup truck in Diabaly January 26, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney