French and Malian forces retake airport

Malian soldiers stroll through the rubble of a former army base in Konna, 430 miles north of the capital, Bamako, leveled in fighting with Islamist rebels.
Malian soldiers stroll through the rubble of a former army base in Konna, 430 miles north of the capital, Bamako, leveled in fighting with Islamist rebels. (JEROME DELAY / Associated Press)
Posted: January 27, 2013

KONNA, Mali - French and Malian troops regained control of the airport and bridge of the crucial, northern city of Gao on Saturday, marking their biggest advance yet in their bid to oust al-Qaeda-linked extremists who have controlled northern Mali for months, military officials said.

The move comes just two weeks after France launched its military offensive in support of the shaky central government of this former French colony. It is unclear what kind of resistance French and Malian troops will face in the coming days.

The French military said in a statement on its website that its special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire from "several terrorist elements" that were later "destroyed."

In a later news release entitled "French and Malian troops liberate Gao" the French ministry of defense said they were bringing back the town's mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to the Malian capital of Bamako far to the west.

But a city official interviewed by telephone by the Associated Press said coalition forces controlled only 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 liberation of Gao was continuing.

Both officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Swooping in under the cover of darkness, the French and Malian forces faced sporadic "acts of harassment" during the day, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris. He offered no immediate estimate on casualties.

Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al-Qaeda-linked fighters more than nine months ago, and the battle to retake the city is expected to be tough.

The rebel group that turned Gao into a replica of Afghanistan under the Taliban has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.

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