French troops in Mali take Gao airport from Islamist rebels

Residents of Sevare, on road to Gao, welcome French soldiers with around 600 troops were said to be on their way to Timbuktu

French-led forces in Mali have taken a key airport near the town of Gao, an Islamist stronghold, although fierce fighting is continuing in the town, it was reported on Saturday.

Around 600 troops were said to be on their way to the town of Timbuktu, on the southern edge of the Sahara, from where several Europeans have been taken hostage.

This area of northern Mali, including the key towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, has been under the control of Islamic fundamentalists since it was overrun by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamists last April.

All communication with Timbuktu has been cut off, but local sources said the town was practically deserted as the rebels fled to villages and mountain areas further north while the French intervention force advanced.

Residents in Sevare, on the road to Gao, said they were delighted to see the French troops. "Gao is a big city. We think the rebellion is finished," said Bah Mamadoo. "This has all been made possible by the French intervention. They are helping us and our army."

As the French and Malian soldiers advanced, one Islamist group announced that it was prepared to "negotiate the liberation" of a French hostage, Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, held since he was kidnapped in the west of Mali in November last year.

The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, confirmed that the intervention force had "seized the airport zone and the bridge at Gao in the north-east of Mali".

In a communication, the minister added that 3,700 French troops were now engaged in Operation Serval, which was aimed at driving the Islamist occupation forces out of the north of Mali, including 2,500 soldiers on the ground.

French military sources said combat was continuing at Gao, where "tensions remain high". The source told AFP: "The Malian and French forces have secured the airport at Gao, and the Wabary bridge in the town. These two strategic positions are now under our control."

Gao airport is around 6km (3.7 miles) east of the town itself. The bridge over the Niger river is at the southern entrance to Gao, one of the three main towns in northern Mali, and around 1,200km from the capital, Bamako. The Islamist positions in the town, described by officials in Paris as the "training camps, infrastructure and logistic bases for the terrorist groups", had already been targeted by French air strikes.

At the same time as French and Malian troops were advancing on Gao, a column of soldiers and tanks from Chad, based in Niger, left the capital, Niamey, to head for the Mali border, where a contingent of Nigerian troops is camped. Both forces are under orders to head for Gao, which is less than three hours from the border.

When Islamists seized a large area of northern Mali last year, they imposed strict Sharia law on local inhabitants. France took a surprise decision to carry out air strikes and send troops to the west African state after the Islamists began to move south towards Bamako just over two weeks ago.

A United Nations-backed force, made up mostly of west African troops, had not been expected to be deployed in the country until the autumn. Paris has said it now expects African nations to "pick up the baton" and send troops to Mali. Several countries have already pledged military aid and soldiers to help wrest back control of the north.

The African Union asked the UN security council to authorise immediate logistical help to permit the 6,000-strong international force to be deployed quickly.

The UN refugee agency says more than 7,000 civilians have fled from the fighting into neighbouring countries.


Luke Harding in Sevare and Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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