SEVARE, Mali French forces have taken control of the airport and a key bridge in the radical Islamist stronghold of Gao, the French defense minister said Saturday, marking a significant inroad into the heart of territory held by the al Qaeda-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.
The Islamists first seized control of Gao and two other 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."
He provided no other details and there was no immediate word on possible casualties. Phone networks have been down in Gao for days, making it nearly impossible to independently corroborate what is going on in the town.
Gao has been under the control of the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad, or MUJAO, for months.
On Friday in a show of might, the Islamists 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.
The announcement that Gao's airport had been taken marked the first official confirmation that French and Malian forces had reached the city. Previously the closest they had been was Hombori, a town some 155 miles away.
The French currently have about 2,500 forces in the country and have said that they will stay as long as needed in Mali, a former French colony. However, they have called for African nations to take the lead in fortifying the Malian army's efforts.
There are currently some 1,750 troops from neighboring African countries, including Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Niger and Chad.