SEVARE, MALI: French and Malian forces pushed toward the desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north for more than nine months.
So far the French forces have met little resistance from the militants, though it remains unclear what battles may await them farther north. The Malian military blocked dozens of international journalists from trying to travel toward Timbuktu.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s defense minister, declined to give details Sunday about the advance on Timbuktu, citing the security of an ongoing military operation.
Timbuktu’s mayor, Ousmane Halle, is in the capital, Bamako, and he said he had no information about the remote town, where phone lines have been cut for days.
A convoy of about 15 vehicles transporting international journalists also was blocked Sunday afternoon in Konna, some 186 miles south of Timbuktu.
The move on Timbuktu comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals under the grip of radical Islamists.
“People were coming out into the streets to greet the arrival of the troops and celebrate,” said Hassane Maiga, a resident of Gao. “At night, youth from Gao went out alongside the Malian military. They scoured homes in search of the Islamists and the youth smashed the houses.”
French and Malian forces were patrolling Gao on Sunday afternoon searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Kone, the Mali military spokesman.
The French special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire in Gao from “several terrorist elements” that were later destroyed, the French military said on its website Saturday.
In a later news release, the French ministry of defense said the forces brought back the town’s mayor, who had fled to Bamako.
However, a Gao official interviewed by phone said late Saturday that coalition forces so far only controlled the airport, the bridge and surrounding neighborhoods. And in Paris, a defense ministry official clarified that the city had not been fully liberated, and that the process of freeing Gao was continuing.
Both officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al-Qaida-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago along with the other northern provincial capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu.