SEVARE, Mali French forces took control of the airport and a key bridge in the radical Islamist stronghold of Gao under the cover of darkness early Saturday, marking a significant inroad into the heart of territory held by the al-Qaida-linked extremists.
The move comes just two weeks after France launched its military offensive to rout the Islamists from power in northern Mali. It is unclear what kind of resistance they will face in the coming days
French and Malian forces came under fire in the morning and continued to face sporadic “acts of harassment,” in the afternoon, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris. He had no immediate estimate on casualties.
The Islamists first seized control of Gao and two other northen provinicial capitals — Timbuktu and Kidal — in April last year during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the distant capital.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced in a statement from his ministry Saturday that jihadist fighters who encountered the advancing French and Malian troops “saw their means of transport and their logistics sites destroyed.”
Nouhoum Maiga, a deputy mayor in Gao, confirmed Saturday that the French had come by land and air late Friday.
Gao has been under the control of the al-Qaida-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad, or MUJAO, for months.
On Friday in a show of might, the Islamist radicals destroyed a bridge near the Niger border with explosives, showing that the extremists still remain a nimble and daunting enemy.
Since France began its military operation two weeks ago with a barrage of airstrikes followed by a land assault, the Islamists have retreated from three cities in central Mali: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza.
The Islamists, though, have maintained control of the majority of the territory in Mali’s north, most importantly the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.