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French-Backed Malian Forces Retake Gao, Advance on Timbuktu

by VOA News January 27, 2013

French and Malian forces are closing in on the ancient town of Timbuktu after more than two weeks of fighting Islamist fighters occupying the region.

Malian military sources say troops have reached the edge of Timbuktu without meeting any resistance.

The ancient desert city is a UNESCO heritage site and home of dozens of mosques and monuments venerating Sufi saints.

Overnight, French air strikes destroyed the home of an al Qaida linked militant leader in the town of Kidal some 1,500 kilometers from the capital, Bamako.

The assault came a day after French and Malian forces recaptured the strategic city of Gao.

VOA correspondent Idrissa Fall, who is in Mali, says the military intervention in Gao is significant because the city had become a haven for rebel groups.

'Gao is the most important city in northern Mali. Gao was a kind of capital for the Movement for the Unity of God and Jihad in West Africa and also a capital for Ansar Dine. It was the former capital of the MNLA, those rebel Tuaregs who proclaimed independence.'

The French Defense Ministry said Saturday that a contingent of troops from Nigeria and Chad was moving into the city to help maintain stability. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the forces used an air and ground operation to cut off the logistic and transportation capabilities of the militants.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Le Drian in a phone conversation Saturday that the Pentagon is prepared to conduct aerial refueling missions. The two defense officials also discussed plans for the U.S. to transport troops from other African nations into Mali. The U.S. has not planned to send its own troops to Mali.

The conflict in Mali and how to end it is the main topic of discussion at the African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday.

Outgoing AU Chairman Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi on Sunday criticized Africa's slow response to the insurgency in Mali, and welcomed international support for the France led operation.

France began a military offensive in Mali earlier this month, after rebels who seized control of much of the country's north last year began pushing toward the capital, Bamako. The rebels have been imposing a strict form of Islamic law on civilians.

As military operations continue in Mali, defense chiefs from the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS were holding an emergency meeting in the Ivory Coast to discuss Mali's unrest. ECOWAS has been discussing plans to send roughly 3,000 troops to Mali as part of a U.N.-backed mission.



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