The French Defense Ministry has said that French and African troops have liberated Gao, northern Mali's most populous city. Meanwhile the West African ECOWAS bloc says it intends to deploy 6,000 troops in Mali.
France's defense ministry said in a Saturday press release that its forces had seized an airport and a bridge over the River Niger, two key strategic points around the city of Gao, also saying "the African and Malian armies will now secure the Gao region and its inhabitants, as it is progressively liberated of the terrorist threats."
The French statement did not say the entire city had been re-taken, though it spoke of the "re-establishment of regular powers" in the city, alluding to plans to fly in the city's mayor, Sallou Diallo, who fled to the capital Bamako when Gao fell last April.
The defense ministry also said that 3,700 French troops were serving in its "Operation Serval" mission in Mali, with 2,500 of them on Malian territory.
Malian army spokesman Lieutenant Diarra Kone told the Reuters news agency that "the Malian army and the French control Gao today."
Gao, the most populous city in the Malian areas controlled by a group of Islamist groups, was one of the cities subjected to French airstrikes in preparation for a ground offensive. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Saturday that troops would be heading to Timbuktu, more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) to the west of Gao, next.
Swift progress north
France decided to intervene in the long-running Malian conflict two weeks ago. The towns of Diabaly, Konna, Douentza, Hombori, and now Gao - at least in part - have since been reclaimed by French and African troops.
An alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups, already fighting for northern territory, made significant gains in the aftermath of a March 2012 coup in Bamako, seizing towns including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.
The Islamist groups, including the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), domestic group Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, later sidelined the Tuaregs.
ECOWAS pledges more troops
Regional defense chiefs from the 15-country Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Saturday pledged to bolster their military presence in Mali to 5,700 troops.
Ivory Coast General Soumalia Bakayoko announced the plan after a meeting in the capital Abidjan. Ivory Coast currently holds the rotating ECOWAS presidency.
The group has sought such a deployment for months, but was struggling with issues like logistics, funding and air support. Paris has asked several western partners to consider providing such assistance to the African contingent, Defense Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said.
A small fraction of the ECOWAS contingent has arrived in the capital Bamako, but have not yet engaged in combat.
Separately, Chad, which is not an ECOWAS member, has pledged around 2,000 troops for Mali.
msh/kms (AFP, dapd, dpa, Reuters)