France’s air force have launched fresh strikes in northern Mali, targeting the city of Gao which had been controlled by the al-Qaeda offshoot MUJAO, destroying rebel bases and forcing the fighters to flee, residents told the AFP news agency.
The attack on Gao on Sunday, the largest city in the desert region controlled by fighters, marked a decisive drive northwards on the third day of French air strikes, moving deep into the vast territory seized by rebels in April.
“There were dozens of strikes in and around Gao. All Islamist bases have been destroyed,” a resident told AFP by phone .
In a another attack on Sunday, the French airforce attacked a camp used by jihadist fighters and a weapons depot for the rebel group Ansar Dine, officials and residents said.
Witnesses said fighter jets struck the camp in Lere, around 150km north of Konna, a key central town that government troops recaptured with French aerial backing on Friday.
“The Lere camp, which was abandoned by the Malian army and had been used by the Islamists, was completely razed by air raids,” a local official said, speaking from Mauritania where he took refuge.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from the capital, Bamako, said authorities claimed to have halted the rebel advance but there had been civilian casualties.
“The mayor of Kono said that at least of three of the dead were children who had jumped into a river, as they tried to escape the massive bombardment in the area,” Adow said.
The first days of the battle against rebels holding Mali’s north have left at least 11 civilians dead, including the three children.
French air raids also struck weapons and ammunition depots used by Ansar Dine, a name that translates as Defenders of Faith, a group whose leaders are connected to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Security sources speaking on condition of anonymity said Sunday’s air strikes also hit targets near Douentza and Nampala.
France has intervened in Mali at Bamako’s request following a new offensive towards the south by the rebels, who seized control of the country’s north in June.
Meanwhile, Togo has committed about 500 troops as part of an African force being deployed to Mali, a military source said on Sunday.
“Togo will send around 500 soldiers to Mali as part of the designated African force,” the military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly. “We are actively preparing. They will leave soon.”
He gave no further details on when the troops would be deployed.
The UN Security Council has approved a 3,300-strong force to help Mali win back its north. The force is to be commanded by a Nigerian, with Nigeria pledging the largest contribution at 600 troops.
Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal on Saturday each pledged 500 troops for the force. Benin on Sunday said it was sending around 300 personnel and that they would be deployed alongside the Togolese battalion.
The first African troops were expected in the country on Sunday.
Some West African military personnel are already on the ground, including a technical team from the Nigerian air force.
The United Nations had cautioned that a military intervention needed to be properly planned, and outlined a step-by-step process that diplomats said would delay the operation until at least September of this year.