Mali's military and French forces have pushed toward the Islamic extremist stronghold in the city of Gao, in their farthest advance east since launching an operation two weeks ago to retake land controlled by the rebels, residents and a security official said Friday.
The soldiers were seen in the town of Hombori, according to residents, who said they stayed several hours in the area before heading back westward.
"They were in eight all-terrain vehicles and two armored vehicles," said Maouloud Daou, a resident of Hombori. "They asked us if there were Islamists in the town and we told them they had left. People were very happy to see the Malian and French military."
A Malian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, confirmed the advance.
Hombori is located 93 miles beyond the current line of control in Douentza, which came back under government forces earlier in the week. The eastward push puts them just 155 miles away from Gao, one of the three main northern cities held by Islamists since last April when the rebels took advantage of the chaotic aftermath of a coup in Mali's capital.
Malian soldiers are attempting to recapture northern Mali from the Islamic extremists with the help of the French military and troops from other African nations.
The Islamists have retreated from several cities in central Mali following a barrage of French air strikes, but the extremists still control the north including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The French currently have some 2,400 forces in the country and have said that they will stay as long as needed in Mali, a former French colony. However, they have called for African nations to take the lead in fortifying the Malian army's efforts.
The Malian army, however, has been accused of committing retaliatory violence against civilians who appear to be northerners or those with suspected links to Islamists.
A French-based human rights group — the International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH by its French acronym -- charges that Malian forces have been behind about 33 killings since fighting erupted on Jan. 10.
Malian Army Capt. Modibo Traore called the allegations "completely false" but declined to comment further. A government statement issued Thursday called on the military to respect human rights, saying "the army should be irreproachable."
Human rights groups have long expressed concerns about retaliatory violence against northern Malians or anyone seen as having ties to the Islamists whose capture of the north has divided the country in two.
Meanwhile, the West African regional bloc known as Ecowas said it was organizing an emergency session of defense chiefs from the 15 countries that make up the group. The gathering on Saturday will be held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Mopti, Mali contributed to this report.