SEGOU, Mali – French and Malian forces on Saturday drove al-Qaida-linked Islamists out of a key city in northern Mali, a major advance in France’s campaign against insurgents in the West African nation.
The French military in Paris announced the capture of Gao, according to news agency reports. Gao is the largest city in the north and the most important Islamist stronghold to fall since French forces arrived this month.
The fall of Gao followed an operation involving French special forces, who took control of the airport and a bridge outside the city.
The French-led military operation in Mali has seen a series of swift advances, restoring local control of central towns such as Diabaly, Douentza and Konna.
The French intervention, which has logistical and intelligence support from other European nations and the United States, came amid concern that al-Qaida-linked extremists who had seized control of northern Mali could use the region to launch terrorist attacks in Europe.
France, the former colonial power in Mali, launched its campaign at the request of the Malian government, whose army proved incapable of repelling a sudden thrust south by the Islamists toward Bamako, the capital. About 3,700 French troops are involved in the fight, 2,500 of them in Mali, according to French military officials.
The operation, approved last year by the United Nations Security Council, was initially expected to be led by regional African forces, but they were slow to deploy, citing problems with logistics, ammunition and transportation. Fewer than 2,000 African troops have reached Mali, of a planned force of about 6,000.
The Islamists conquered Gao and other northern cities and towns in April, taking advantage of the chaos after a military coup ousted Mali’s government.
French and Malian forces are expected to continue their push north to Kidal, the most important remaining rebel stronghold, and Timbuktu. But eliminating the militias from the vast northern desert region of Mali is likely to be complicated, French military officials have said.