French and Malian troops were on Sunday restoring government control over the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu, the latest gain in a fast-moving French-led offensive against al Qaeda-allied fighters occupying northern Mali.
The Islamist militant rebels have pulled back northwards to avoid relentless French air strikes that have destroyed their bases, vehicles and weapons, allowing French and Malian troops to advance rapidly with air support and armoured vehicles.
A Malian military source told Reuters the French and Malian forces reached "the gates of Timbuktu" late on Saturday without meeting resistance from the Islamist insurgents who had held the town since last year.
The advancing troops were working on securing the town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes, ready to flush out any Islamist fighters who might still be hiding among the population.
"Timbuktu is delicate, you can't just go in like that," the source, who asked not to be named, said.
On Saturday, the French-Malian offensive recaptured Gao, which along with Timbuktu was one of three major northern towns occupied last year by Tuareg and Islamist rebels who included fighters from al Qaeda's North Africa wing AQIM.
The third town, Kidal, remains in rebel hands.
The United States and Europe are backing the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.
One Timbuktu resident now outside the town said a friend inside had sent him SMS messages saying he had seen government troops on the streets, but gave no more details.
Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA, had destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Moslems in Timbuktu, provoking international outrage.
They had also imposed severe sharia, Islamic law, including amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers.
GAO MAYOR BACK IN OFFICE
Malian government control was restored in Gao on Saturday, after French special forces backed by warplanes and helicopters seized the town's airport and a key bridge. Around a dozen "terrorists" were killed in the assault, while French forces suffered no losses or injuries, France's defence ministry said.
The Islamists seemed to be pulling back further north into the trackless desert wastes and mountain fastnesses of the Sahara, from where some military experts fear they could carry on a hit-and-run guerrilla war against the government.
Officials said the mayor of Gao, Sadou Diallo, who had taken refuge in Bamako during the Islamist occupation, had been reinstalled at the head of the local administration while French, Malian, Chadian and Nigerien troops secured the town and the surrounding area.
As the French and Malian troops push into northern Mali, African troops from a continental intervention force expected to number 7,700 are being flown into the country, despite delays due to logistical problems and the lack of airlift capacity.
The robust military action by France over the past two weeks in its former Sahel colony has left African leaders embarrassed about the continent's inability to quickly field its own force to restore the territorial integrity of an African state.
At an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, outgoing AU chairman Thomas Boni Yayi, president of Benin, criticised Africa's slow response to the Isla mist insurgency in Mali, and welcomed international support for the French-led operation.
"How could it be that when faced with a danger that threatens its very foundations, Africa, although it had the means to defend itself, continued to wait," Yayi told African leaders on Sunday after handing over the AU chair toEthiopia.
France sent warplanes and 2,500 troops to Mali, formerly French Sudan, after its government appealed to Parisfor help when Isla mist rebel columns early in January launched an offensive towards the southern capital Bamako. The rebels seized several towns, since recaptured by the French.
Around 1,900 African troops, including Chadian, have been deployed to Mali so far as part of the planned U.S.-based African intervention force, known as AFISMA.
While the French and Malians thrust northeast in a two-pronged offensive through Goa and Timbuktu, Chadian and local forces in neighboring Niger are preparing a flanking thrust against the Isla mists coming up from the south.
The AU is expected to seek hundreds of millions of dollars in logistical support and funding for the AFISMA force at a conference of donors for the Mali operation to be held in Addis Ababa on Jan. 29.
Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Richard Valdmanis in Sevare, Mali, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Richard Lough and Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Philippa Fletcher