Malian and French soldiers have captured Timbuktu airport as they continue to retake territory from al-Qaeda-linked rebels in northern Mali. The recapture of the airport of the key northern city on Sunday evening was “a major strategic gain” for the French-Malian coalition forces.
A reconnaissance team has already reached the edge of Timbuktu, a senior Malian officer said, adding that French and Malian soldiers were approaching the city “without meeting any resistance”.
France’s defence ministry said one of its armoured battalions and Malian troops were headed toward the ancient trading post and centre of Islamic learning, where 333 revered Muslim saints are believed to be buried.
The advance comes after French and Malian soldiers on January 26 seized the town of Gao, east of Timbuktu – the biggest victory so far in their 17-day operation against the rebels, who have controlled the north for 10 months. The French defence ministry said in a statement that it had carried out about 20 air strikes on January 26 until January 27 in the Gao and Timbuktu regions.
Gao is the biggest of six towns seized by French and Malian troops since they launched their offensive on January 11 to wrest the vast desert north from the rebels. French-led forces took the city from the al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali in April last year.
The French defence ministry issued a statement saying the whole town of Gao had been liberated, and government control was already being established – notably with the return of the town’s mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to Mali’s capital Bamako far to the west.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that French-led forces had captured the key bridge and airport in Gao, and fighters whom they encountered “saw their means of transport and their logistics sites destroyed”.
Before the joint air-land operations, French forces carried out “an important phase of air strikes” around Gao and Timbuktu, with nearly 30 bombs fired from fighter jets, France’s military said in yet another statement.
Two Rafale jets have been added to the campaign, bringing France’s total deployment to 12 fighter jets as part of the code-named Operation Serval in Mali, the military said.
On January 25 in a show of might, the rebels destroyed a bridge near the Niger border with explosives, showing that the extremists still remain a nimble and daunting enemy.
There are currently some 1,750 troops from neighbouring African countries, including Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Niger and Chad. The US announced on January 26 that it would be increasing logistical support to French efforts by agreeing to refuel French warplanes being used in Mali.