Mali: French-led soldiers 'in control of Gao'

The BBC's Mark Doyle visits the remains of the mayor's house in Konna after fighting in the town

French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the northern city of Gao, the French defence ministry has said.

The town was previously a stronghold of Islamist fighters after it was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamists last April.

French-led troops moved into Gao itself after earlier securing the airport and a strategic bridge to the south.

French officials said troops from neighbouring Niger and Chad would now move into the town to help secure it.

They also suggested that government control was already being restored, with the mayor of Gao returning on Saturday after being ousted by the Islamist takeover.

There was no official death toll from the offensive, but the French army said about a "dozen" Islamist fighters were killed in the overnight operations, without any casualties on the French and Malian side.

After a punishing series of air strikes on jihadist positions in Gao, Malian and French forces took first the airport and then the bridge over the river Niger, before being able to confirm they had taken control of the whole of the town.

Malian officials spoke of scenes of joy on the streets of Gao, but also of some looting.

Gao's mayor, who has been in the capital Bamako since the town fell to the Islamists early last year, has been flown back in.

Chadian and Nigerian forces, meanwhile, are poised to push up from the Nigerien border - about 200km to the south - in order to reinforce the French and Malians.

French-led troops are also reported to be advancing on the town of Lere to the west.

It all appears to confirm a picture of rolling successes for the French and Malians, as they retake the main population centres of the north, says the BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris.

Air-strikes

The fall of Gao, northern Mali's most populous city, marks a significant advance for French and Malian troops.

Mali's humiliated army will be itching to march into Timbuktu - on Saturday if possible.

But the French will be anxious to slow them down, waiting for West African troop reinforcements to arrive in central Mali in the next week or so.

There is no sense in advancing if your rear is exposed, and so, when they finally get the logistics sorted out, the Nigerians and others will be given the job of patrolling newly recaptured towns, and trying to prevent the Islamist militants from returning.

There are other reasons for slowing the pace.

Mali's ill-disciplined army is already being accused of summary executions and rapes - justifying fears of reprisals against Tuaregs.

The original international plan had always called for a long military build-up to give European soldiers a chance to retrain the Malians and hopefully minimise human rights abuses by them against civilians.

That plan is in tatters now, but a training programme is being accelerated.

Islamists seized a vast area of northern Mali last year and have imposed strict Sharia, or Islamic law, on its inhabitants.

France intervened militarily on 11 January to stop them advancing further south.

It has already deployed 2,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali as well as launching air strikes.

With the capture of Gao, the French are increasingly confident of pushing the Islamists out of all the major population centres in the north, says our correspondent.

The other major northern towns of Kidal and Timbuktu remain in Islamist hands. But, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the historic town of Timbuktu - an important symbol which has also been under Islamist control for most of the last year - should also soon be retaken.

The French are confident that this phase of the campaign will soon be over, adds our correspondent, though of course the vast desert hinterland offers the Islamists endless opportunities to retreat and regroup.

The UN refugee agency says more than 7,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring countries since 10 January to escape the fighting.

In a statement earlier, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that 3,700 French troops were engaged in Operation Serval, 2,500 of them on Malian soil.

Gao was one of the first rebel-held areas to be targeted by air-strikes after France decided to intervene in its former colony, a decision which took many by surprise.

Aid pledged

A UN-backed international force had not been expected in the west African state until the autumn.

Several African countries have pledged military aid to help the Malian government win back control of the north.

On Friday the African Union asked the UN Security Council to authorise immediate logistical help to allow the 6,000-strong force to deploy quickly.

It also recommended civilian observers to monitor the human rights situation in the areas which have come back under the control of the Malian government. Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of committing serious abuses.

map

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Africa stories

RSS

Features

  • Lucy FranklinDouble trouble

    'Rising house prices left me high and dry - twice!'


  • NS Savannah, 1962Nuclear dream

    The ship that totally failed to change the world


  • Ed Miliband takes a selfie at a Cambridge hairdressersNo more photo ops?

    Why is Ed Miliband drawing attention to his public image?


  • Espresso cup7 days quiz

    Which city serves the strongest cup of coffee?


  • Glasgow 2014 quaichs and medalsQuaich guide

    What do the Scottish gifts given to Games medallists symbolise?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.