BAMAKO: French-led troops Saturday seized the airport and a key bridge serving the Islamist stronghold of Gao in a stunning boost to a 16-day-old offensive on al-Qaeda-linked rebels holding Mali’s vast desert north.
In a parallel pincer-like movement, battle-hardened troops from Chad and soldiers from Niger moved towards the Malian border from the Niger town of Ouallam, which lies about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south-east of Gao. France on Saturday confirmed the capture of the airport and the Wanbary bridge at Gao but said fighting was continuing in the town itself.
The airport is located about six kilometres east of Gao, while the bridge lies at the southern entrance to the town, held by the al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
“French planes have landed in Gao. We want to quickly take over control of the eight quarters of the town and avoid damage,” a Malian security official said. The French military in Paris confirmed the overnight seizure of the airport and bridge and said there were “sporadic” attacks on its forces.
There was no fighting “strictly speaking” but the Islamist fighters were firing at French positions “after taking shelter in urban areas,” a spokesman for the chief of staff told AFP. French defence ministry sources also said a report in French newspaper Le Monde that hundreds of Islamists had died since the French military intervention in Mali were “plausible.”
Sources said earlier that the Islamists had left Gao in the wake of the French-led campaign on January 11 to stop a triad of al-Qaeda-linked groups from pushing southward from their northern bastions towards Bamako.
An alliance of Tuareg rebels who wanted to declare an independent homeland in the north and hardline Islamist groups seized the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in April last year. The Islamist groups include MUJAO, Ansar Dine, a homegrown Islamist group, and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, of which MUJAO is an offshoot.
The Islamists then sidelined the Tuaregs to implement their own Islamic agenda. Their harsh interpretation of Sharia law has seen transgressors flogged, stoned and executed, and they have forbidden music and television and forced women to wear veils.