MOSCOW, January 27 (RIA Novosti) – French-led forces in Mali are advancing on the key northern city of Timbuktu after seizing the Islamic rebels’ stronghold of Gao, western media reported on Sunday.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said late on Saturday the French and Malian troops would arrive "near Timbuktu soon.”
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defense minister, said on Sunday the French-led troops were now patrolling Gao, northern Mali’s most populous city, after they captured the airport and a strategic bridge to the south.
Meanwhile, the US has agreed to Paris' request to help refuel French jets during the ongoing French air offensive in Mali.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held a phone conversation with French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian to inform him that “US Africa Command will support the French military by conducting aerial refueling missions as operations in Mali continue.”
US policy prohibits direct military aid to the incumbent Mali government because it has come to power as a result of a coup, not through an election, CNN said.
Mali, a French colony until 1960, is in turmoil since last March’s military coup, which triggered an uprising of separatist Tuareg tribes that seized control of the country’s south.
The Tuaregs were soon suppressed by the better armed Al-Qaida affiliates who overtook control of the northern region, imposing Sharia law and destroying historical heritage sites in Timbuktu, and later started a southward advance.
France deployed a military force earlier this month to aid Mali’s government, whose army had been retreating before the attack of armed groups with ties to Al-Qaida.