Bamako: In yet another conquest over the Islamists, French led Mali troops on Saturday seized a key town of Gao, having taken control of the airport and a key bridge in a town that has been the stronghold of al Qaeda linked extremists.
French officials said that troops from Niger and Chad would now move into the town to help secure it, the BBC reported.
The government control was also set to be restored in Gao after the town’s Governor was returning after he was ousted by the Islamists.
The capture of Gao comes after two weeks of French intervention in Mali.
The French military said in a statement on its website that their 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 press 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.
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 had no immediate estimate on casualties.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al-Qaida-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.
His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.
The French assault began with the capture of the airport, a strategic landing strip that opens the way for easier sorties all over northern Mali.
The further capture of a major bridge leading into the town means that the jihadists "saw their means of transport and their logistics sites destroyed," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.
The operation in Gao comes at the same time as airstrikes in the two other provincial capitals held by the extremists — the cities of Timbuktu and Kidal, which like Gao fell to the rebels last April, during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the distant capital. Nearly 30 bombs have been fired from fighter jets over the past two days, said France`s military in a communique.
With Agency Inputs