French-led Malian troops have recaptured the al-Qaeda-linked rebel stronghold of Gao, the biggest town in northern Mali, and troops from Niger and Chad “will now take up the baton,” the French defence ministry said.
A statement said the town’s mayor Sadou Diallo would arrive in Gao from the capital Bamako later Saturday.
French forces had taken control of the airport and a key bridge in Gao, marking a significant inroad into the heart of territory held by the al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
Saturday’s move comes just two weeks after France launched its military offensive to rout the rebels from power in northern Mali.
It is unclear what kind of resistance they will face in the coming days
French and Malian forces came under fire in the morning and continued to face sporadic “acts of harassment,” in the afternoon, said Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris.
He had no immediate estimate on casualties.
The rebels first seized control of Gao and two other northern provincial capitals – Timbuktu and Kidal – in April last year during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the distant capital.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced in a statement from his ministry Saturday that rebels fighters who encountered the advancing French and Malian troops “saw their means of transport and their logistics sites destroyed.”
Before the joint air-land operations overnight, French forces carried out “an important phase of air strikes” around Gao and Timbuktu, with nearly 30 bombs fired from fighter jets over the previous two days, the military said.
More French and African troops and equipment were being sent to Gao, announced the French defence ministry. Troops from Chad and Niger “should arrive in the Gao area very soon,” it added.
Since France began its military operation two weeks ago with a barrage of airstrikes followed by a land assault, rebel fighters have retreated from three cities in central Mali: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza.
The rebels have maintained control of the majority of the territory in Mali’s north, most importantly the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The announcement that Gao’s airport had been taken marked the first official confirmation that French and Malian forces had reached the city.
The French and Malian troops are currently “around Gao and soon near Timbuktu,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s prime minister, in a speech to the French community of Chile’s Santiago.
Ayrault, who is attending a two-day summit of Latin American and European leaders opening later on Saturday, reiterated that the French troops backing Malian government forces had no intention of staying.
“The objective is that the African multinational force being put together be able to take over, and that Mali be able to begin a process of political stabilisation,” he said.