French, Mali forces head toward Timbuktu

Malian soldiers patrol a street in Diabaly, January 26, 2013. French-led Malian troops recaptured the Islamist stronghold of Gao, the biggest town in northern Mali, and troops from Niger and Chad "will now take up the baton," the French defense ministry said. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

SEVARE, Mali French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north for more than nine months.

So far the French forces have met little resistance, though it remains unclear what battles may await them farther north. The Malian military blocked dozens of international journalists from trying to travel toward Timbuktu.

Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defense minister, declined to give details Sunday about the advance on Timbuktu citing the security of an ongoing operation.

Timbuktu's mayor, Ousmane Halle, is in the capital, Bamako, and he told The Associated Press he had no information about the remote town, where phone lines have been cut for days.

A convoy of about 15 vehicles transporting international journalists also was blocked Sunday afternoon in Konna, some 186 miles (300 kilometers) south of Timbuktu.

The move on Timbuktu comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals under the grip of radical Islamists.

Meanwhile, French and African land forces also were making their way to Gao from neighboring Niger.

French and Malian forces were patrolling Gao Sunday afternoon searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Kone, the Mali military spokesman.

The French special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire in Gao 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 brought back the town's mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to the Malian capital of Bamako far to the west.

However, a Gao 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.

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