Mopti (Mali): Mali`s military and French forces have pushed toward the Islamic extremist stronghold in the city of Gao, in their farthest push east since launching an operation two weeks ago to retake land controlled by the rebels, residents and a security official said on Friday.
The soldiers were seen in the town of Hombori, according to residents, who said they stayed several hours in the area before heading back westward.
"They were in eight all-terrain vehicles and two armored vehicles," said Maouloud Daou, a resident of Hombori. "They asked us if there were Islamists in the town and we told them they had left. People were very happy to see the Malian and French military."
A Malian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, confirmed the advance.
Hombori is located 150 kilometres beyond the current line of control in Douentza, which came back under government forces earlier in the week.
The eastward push puts them just 250 kilometres away from Gao, one of the three main northern cities held by Islamists since last April when the rebels took advantage of the chaotic aftermath of a coup in Mali`s capital.
Malian soldiers are attempting to recapture northern Mali from the Islamic extremists with the help of the French military and troops from other African nations.
The Islamists have retreated from several cities in central Mali following a barrage of French air strikes, but the extremists still control the north including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The French currently have some 2,400 forces in the country and have said that they will stay as long as needed in Mali, a former French colony. However, they have called for African nations to take the lead in fortifying the Malian army`s efforts.
There are currently some 1,750 troops from countries in the region, including Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Niger and Chad.
The Malian army, however, has been accused of committing retaliatory violence against civilians who appear to be northerners or those with suspected links to Islamists.
A French-based human rights group the International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH by its French acronym, charges that Malian forces have been behind about 33 killings since fighting erupted on January 10.
Malian Army Capt Modibo Traore called the allegations "completely false" but declined to comment further. A government statement issued yesterday called on the military to respect human rights, saying "the army should be irreproachable."