SEVARE, Mali — French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north for more than nine months.
So far the French forces have met little resistance from the militants, though it remains unclear what battles may await them farther north. The Malian military blocked dozens of international journalists from trying to travel toward Timbuktu.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s defense minister, declined to give details Sunday about the advance on Timbuktu, citing the security of an ongoing military operation.
Timbuktu’s mayor, Ousmane Halle, is in the capital, Bamako, and he told The Associated Press he had no information about the remote town, where phone lines have been cut for days.
A convoy of about 15 vehicles transporting international journalists also was blocked Sunday afternoon in Konna, some 186 miles (300 kilometers) south of Timbuktu.
The move on Timbuktu comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals under the grip of radical Islamists.
“People were coming out into the streets to greet the arrival of the troops and celebrate,” said Hassane Maiga, a resident of Gao. “At night, youth from Gao went out alongside the Malian military. They scoured homes in search of the Islamists and the youth smashed the houses.”
French and Malian forces were patrolling Gao Sunday afternoon searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Kone, the Mali military spokesman.
The French special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire in Gao from “several terrorist elements” that were later “destroyed,” the French military said in a statement on its website Saturday.
In a later press release entitled “French and Malian troops liberate Gao,” the French ministry of defense said they brought back the town’s mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to Bamako.
However, a Gao official interviewed by telephone by The Associated Press said late Saturday that coalition forces so far only controlled the airport, the bridge and surrounding neighborhoods. And in Paris, a defense ministry official clarified that the city had not been fully liberated, and that the process of freeing Gao was continuing.
Both officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al-Qaida-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago along with the other northern provincial capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu.
The rebel group that turned Gao into a replica of Afghanistan under the Taliban has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.
His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.
Since France began its military operation, the Islamists have retreated from three small towns in central Mali: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza. However, the Islamists still control much of the north, including Kidal.
The Pentagon said late Saturday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told France the United States will aid the French military with aerial refueling missions.
U.S. aerial refueling planes would be a boost to air support for French ground forces as they enter vast areas of northern Mali, which is the size of Texas, that are controlled by al-Qaida-linked extremists.
The U.S. was already helping France by transporting French troops and equipment to the West African nation. However, the U.S. government has said it cannot provide direct aid to the Malian military because the country’s democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup last March.
The Malian forces, however, are now expected to get more help than initially promised from neighboring nations.
Col. Shehu Usman Abdulkadir, a Nigerian in charge of regional forces heading to Mali, told The Associated Press that the African force will be expanded from an anticipated 3,200 troops to some 5,700 — a figure that does not include the 2,200 soldiers promised by Chad.
Most analysts had said the earlier figure was far too small to confront the Islamists given the huge territory they hold.
The Mali conflict has been dominating the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which runs through Monday. On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met in the Ethiopian capital with Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore.
Ban “stressed the need to pursue a political process that would lead to a consensual roadmap for the transition to full constitutional order, in parallel with ongoing military operations,” according to a U.N. statement.
Traore is heading a civilian transitional government that was set up following the coup last March. No date has been set yet for elections to choose a new government.