Mali forces backed by French troops are advancing towards the northern key town of Timbuktu after seizing the rebel stronghold of Gao, French officials have said.
Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Mali, said Malian troops recaptured Timbuktu Airport on Sunday evening.
“I am standing on the tarmac of Timbuktu Airport that was recaptured by Malian forces this evening. French forces are here as well now. This is a major strategic gain for these forces,” our correspondent said.
“The next stage is to go into the city of Timbuktu, maybe in the early hours tomorrow.”
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault issued the statement on Sunday after French airstrikes forced out the al-Qaeda-linked fighters from northern areas, clearing the way for the ground offensive.
Ayrault said the troops were currently “around Gao and (will be) soon near Timbuktu,” further west.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Adow, reporting from Mauritania’s border with Mali, said that Malian and French troops were “less than a 100km” from Timbuktu.
Timbuktu, which has served as a centre of Islamic education for centuries, has been under the control of rebels for about 10 months.
“The Malian and the French troops have their eyes set on three main towns: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal,” Adow said.
“We also hear that there have been air bombardments in Kidal.”
He also said that many rebels have been fleeing from French and Malian forces.
“The rebels are retreating from most of these towns where the Malian and French forces have been passing through and even taking them without much resistance from the rebels.”
Meanwhile, the US has agreed to Paris’ request to help provide vital refuelling for the ongoing French air offensive in Mali.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian on Saturday that Washington would send tankers to help refuel French jets, a Pentagon spokesman said.
They also discussed plans for the Americans to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to facilitate the international effort in Mali.
“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 stabilisation,” Ayrault said.
A Malian security source in Gao told AFP news agency by telephone that a first contingent of Malian, Chadian and Niger troops had arrived in Gao to help secure it, having been flown in from Niamey, capital of neighbouring Niger.
Other soldiers from Chad and Niger were moving by land towards the Malian border from the Niger town of Ouallam, which lies about 100km southeast of Gao.