France claims control of Gao in Mali
on 27/01/2013 10:46:26
The announcement comes just two weeks after France launched its military offensive to rout the Islamists from power. 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 defence said they were bringing back the town's mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to the Malian capital Bamako.
However a defence ministry official clarified that the city had not been fully liberated, and the process of freeing Gao was continuing.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by the jihadist fighters nine months ago, and the battle to retake it was expected to be tough.
The rebel fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.
Swooping in under the cover of darkness, the French and Malian forces faced sporadic "acts of harassment" during the day, said Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris.
He had no immediate estimate on casualties.
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.
The simultaneous aerial attacks also come as ground troops are carrying out a pincer movement, with French and African land forces heading to Gao from Niger, where Chad has sent a battalion.
The Pentagon has said that the US will aid the French military with aerial refuelling missions.
US aerial refuelling planes would be a boost to air support for French ground forces as they enter areas of Mali that are controlled by the extremists.
The US was already helping France by transporting French troops and equipment to the West African nation.
French and Malian forces are also heading to Timbuktu, via the central corridor that leads north from the central Malian city of Segou, via the recently recaptured town of Diabaly.
Since France began its military operation, the Islamists have retreated from three small towns in central Mali, Diabaly, Konna and Douentza.