French-led troops Saturday recaptured the Islamist stronghold of Gao in a spectacular boost to a 16-day-old offensive against Al Qaeda-linked rebels holding Mali’s vast desert north.
The seizure of Gao, the most populated town in Mali’s northern region which is roughly the size of Texas, was announced by the French defense ministry and confirmed by Malian security sources.
Paris said troops from Niger and Chad “will pick up the baton” and that the town’s mayor Sadou Diallo would arrive in Gao from the capital Bamako later Saturday.
“A first contingent of Malian, Chadian and Niger troops are presently in Gao to help secure the town,” a Malian security source told AFP by telephone from the town.
“The French and African forces are in 100 percent control of the town of Gao,” another Malian security source said, adding: “There is popular rejoicing and everyone is very happy.”
In a parallel pincer-like movement, troops from Chad and Niger moved towards the Malian border from the Niger town of Ouallam, which lies about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Gao.
The French-led forces had overnight seized Gao’s airport and a key bridge on the southern entrance of the town, held by the Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
French defense ministry sources said a report in French newspaper Le Monde that hundreds of Islamists had died since the French military intervention in Mali was “plausible.”
An alliance of Tuareg rebels who wanted to declare an independent homeland in the north and hardline Islamist groups seized the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in April last year after a coup in Bamako.
The Islamist groups include MUJAO, Ansar Dine, a homegrown Islamist group, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, of which MUJAO is an offshoot.
The Islamists then sidelined the Tuaregs to implement their own agenda. Their harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law has seen transgressors flogged, stoned and executed, and they have forbidden music and television and forced women to wear veils.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the troops were currently “around Gao and (will be) soon near Timbuktu,” a fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert which for centuries was a key centre of Islamic learning.
“The objective is that the African multinational force being put together be able to take over, and that Mali be able to begin a process of political stabilization,” he said.
The MUJAO meanwhile said it was ready for negotiations to release Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, a French national of Portuguese origin who was kidnapped in western Mali in November.
“The MUJAO is ready to negotiate the release of Gilberto,” said spokesman Walid Abu Sarhaoui. “We Muslims can come to an understanding on the issue of war,” he added, without elaborating.
But Ayrault snubbed the offer, saying “we will not give in to blackmail” and added: “We cannot cede to terrorism because if this is the case they will win every time.”
West African defense chiefs meanwhile reviewed the slow deployment of regional forces to bolster the French-led offensive at an emergency meeting in Ivory Coast and boosted their troops pledges to 5,700 from about 4,500 earlier.