French and Malian troops have advanced into northern Mali and reached the town of Hombori, about 160km south of the rebel stronghold of Gao, after French air strikes drove back the fighters, military sources say.
Sources on the ground, who declined to be identified, said on Friday the Malian army had moved forward after taking the central town of Douentza on Monday.
“We have taken Douentza and are now moving into other rebel-held towns,” Diaran Kone, defence ministry spokesman, told Reuters news agency, without providing further details.
Meanwhile, French and Malian troops have staged joint patrols for the first time in Mali’s east, AFP news agency said quoting a Malian military source.
“It’s a first” in the region near the border with Niger, the source said.
French fighter jets bombed two rebel bases near Gao early on Thursday, targeting Ansongo, about 80km from the town and extremist bases in a nearby village, according to Malian and Niger security sources.
Meanwhile, Mali’s government has warned soldiers to respect human rights following reports that the military killed civilians at a bus stop in central Mali.
A government statement said “the army should be irreproachable”.
West African troops
For nearly two weeks, French aircraft have bombarded rebel positions, vehicles and stores in the centre and north of Mali, as a ground force of African troops assembles to launch a UN-backed military intervention.
On Thursday, around 160 troops from Burkina Faso deployed in the dusty central Malian town of Markala – the first West African troops to link up with French and Malian forces.
More than 2,000 Chadian soldiers and 500 troops from Niger are being deployed in Ouallam in Niger, near the Mali border, to open a second front against the rebels, as part of a UN-mandated African force to boost and eventually take over, the French-led offensive.
France has about 2,150 troops on the ground.
Regional bloc ECOWAS said that West African defence chiefs will meet in an emergency session in Abidjan on Saturday to discuss military operations in Mali.
|Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland reports from northern Mali|
The military chiefs “will meet in an emergency session in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Saturday … to appraise the status of the ongoing deployment of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA)”, it said in a statement on Friday.
Police chiefs from the 15-nation bloc as well as the commander of the ECOWAS-led force, a Nigerian, are also to attend the one-day meeting, it said.
West African nations have set out plans to deploy 3,300 troops to help Mali retake its rebel-occupied north, but the deployment has been delayed by financing concerns.
Gao has been under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for more than nine months.
MUJAO had enforced an extreme form of Islamic law and Gao, one of the three main towns in northern Mali with Kidal and Timbuktu, had seen some of the worst punishments meted out in the name of sharia.
A coup by renegade soldiers in Bamako allowed the rebels to seize the entire desert north almost unopposed but they were soon overpowered by Ansar al-Dine (a homegrown ultra-conservative group), MUJAO and AQIM.
Mali’s crisis began when Tuaregs last year revived a decades-old rebellion for independence of the north, which they call Azawad. The Tuaregs have since been sidelined by groups which imposed strict Islamic law in the region.