French soldiers patrol in armored vehicles in the outskirts of Sevare. / Thibault Camus, AP
SEVARE, Mali (AP) - French and Malian troops held a strategic bridge and the airport in the northern town of Gao on Sunday as their force also pressed toward Timbuktu, another stronghold of Islamic extremists in northern Mali, officials said.
The advances come as French and African land forces also make their way to Gao from neighboring Niger in a bid to defeat the al-Qaida-linked Islamists who seized control of northern Mali more than nine months ago.
The French military announced late Saturday that it had liberated the town of Gao, though other officials said the fight to control it was still in progress.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defense minister, said Sunday that the forces were patrolling Gao and had maintained their hold over the bridge and airport overnight.
The advance on Gao marked the biggest achievement yet for the French and Malian troops since they began their operation to oust the Islamist radicals two weeks ago. It remains unclear, though, what kind of resistance the forces will face in the coming days.
The French special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire from "several terrorist elements" that were later "destroyed," the French military said in a statement on its website Saturday.
In a later press release entitled "French and Malian troops liberate Gao" the French ministry of defense said they were bringing back the town's mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to the Malian capital of Bamako far to the west.
However, a city official interviewed by telephone by The Associated Press said late Saturday that coalition forces so far only controlled the airport, the bridge and surrounding neighborhoods.
And in Paris, a defense ministry official clarified that the city had not been fully liberated, and that the process of freeing Gao was continuing.
Both officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Swooping in under the cover of darkness, the French and Malian forces faced sporadic "acts of harassment" during the day, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris. He had no immediate estimate on casualties.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al-Qaida-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago along with the other northern provincial capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu.
The rebel group that turned Gao into a replica of Afghanistan under the Taliban has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.
His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said late Saturday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has told Le Drian the United States will aid the French military with aerial refueling missions.
U.S. aerial refueling planes would be a boost to air support for French ground forces as they enter vast areas of northern Mali, the size of Texas, that are controlled by al-Qaida-linked extremists.
The U.S. was already helping France by transporting French troops and equipment to the West African nation. However, the U.S. government has said it cannot provide direct aid to the Malian military because the country's democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup last March.
The Malian forces, however, are now expected to get more help than initially promised from neighboring nations.
Col. Shehu Usman Abdulkadir told The Associated Press that the African force will be expanded from an anticipated 3,200 troops to some 5,700 - a figure that does not include the 2,200 soldiers promised by Chad.
Most analysts had said the earlier figure was far too small to confront the Islamists given the huge territory they hold.
"Because they've seen that the area itself, northern Mali is too large for that number of troops so there was a need to increase the number and that's why we arrived at 5,700," said Abdulkadir, the force commander. "I believe that as time goes on it may be necessary to increase the strength again. Because (when) France pulls out we definitely must have to increase the strength."
Since France began its military operation, the Islamists have retreated from three small towns in central Mali: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza.
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