A Malian soldier rides in a pickup truck on patrol along a road north of Diabaly… (Nic Bothma / European Pressphoto…)
SEGOU, Mali — French and Malian forces on Saturday drove Al Qaeda-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.
Code-named Operation Serval, the French-led military operation in Mali has seen a series of swift advances, regaining control of central towns such as Diabaly, Douentza and Konna before Gao.
The French intervention, which has logistical and intelligence support from the U.S. and other European powers, came amid fears that Al Qaeda-linked extremists who had seized control of northern Mali could use the region to launch terror attacks on Europe.
France, the former colonial power in Mali and much of West Africa, launched its campaign at the request of the Malian government, whose own army proved incapable of resisting a sudden thrust south by the Islamists toward Bamako, the capital. The rebels took the town of Konna this month.
There are about 3,700 French troops involved in the fight, 2,500 of them on the ground in Mali, according to French military officials.
The operation, approved by the U.N. Security Council last year, was initially expected to be led by regional African forces, but they were slow to deploy, blaming problems of logistics, ammunition and transport. Fewer than 2,000 African troops have reached in Mali of a planned force of some 6,000.
The Islamists conquered Gao and other northern cities and towns in April, taking advantage of the chaos that followed a military coup against Mali’s government.
French and Malian forces are expected to continue their push north in coming days to towns including 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 conceded.
French and Malian forces attacked Gao before dawn and came under fire from insurgents, according to French army spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard, who gave no details on casualties. Earlier Saturday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced the capture of the Gao airport and a nearby bridge.
The French military also said Saturday that its air force had launched some 30 airstrikes against rebel targets around Gao and Timbuktu in the previous two days. It said troops from Chad and Niger would be deployed in Gao and the surrounding area to secure the town.