French, Malian troops seize key Gao town

French and Malian troops on Friday advanced on the key Islamist stronghold of Gao after recapturing the northern town of Hombori as the extremists bombed a strategic bridge to thwart a new front planned in the east.

The French-led assault against the radical Islamists controlling northern Mali entered its third week with a strong push into the vast semi-arid zone amid rising humanitarian concerns for people in the area facing a dire food crisis.

“At present, Malian and French soldiers are in Hombori. There are no longer any Islamists on the ground,” said a teacher in the town which lies 920 kilometres (575 miles) north of the capital Bamako and 200 kilometres west of Gao.

A Malian security source said the troops would press on to the eastern city of Gao, one of the three major northern towns along with Kidal and Timbuktu, where the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed brutal sharia for 10 months.

The security source added that in the west, the French-led forces who had recaptured the town of Diabaly on Monday, were pushing towards the town of Lere with the aim of “taking control of Timbuktu” which lies further north.

Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal were seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels — who wanted to declare independence of the north — and hardline Islamist groups in April last year.

The Islamists hijacked the rebellion and sidelined the Tuaregs to implement radical Islamic laws, flogging, stoning and executing transgressors, forbidding music and television and forcing women to wear veils.

France swept to the aid of the weakened Malian army on January 11 as the Islamists pushed south towards the capital Bamako amid rising fears the zone could become a haven for terrorism.

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