French soldiers stand next to a tank at a Malian air base in Bamako in January.
On Saturday afternoon local time, French forces seized an airport and a key bridge over the Niger River in the Islamist-held city of Gao in the central part of the Mali, Reuters reported.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced the capture in a ministry statement, and he said that the jihadist fighters "saw their means of transport and logistics sites destroyed," the AP reported.
France has sent 2,500 troops to Mali, and along with between 1,200 and 1,750 troops from neighboring African countries, and they have spent the last 16 days trying to route al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who currently hold the north half of the country. The Islamist group, known in English as "the Movement for Oneness and Jihad," first seized control of Gao and two other provincial capitals in April 2012 during an attempted coup.
"The rebels have melted into the local population. There is harassment. The operation is still under way. It is a bit complicated," a French officer in Mali, who asked not to be named, told Reuters, referring to the assault on Gao.
The Islamist group still holds three cities in the center of the country: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza, the AP said, and the militants are making a stand for their land. On Friday, they blew up a bridge near the Mali-Niger border.
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French forces are now pushing aggressively northward, but they are encouraging African forces to take the lead. A U.N. mandate requires a 6,000-strong African intervention force, known as AFISMA, to be deployed for this offensive, but African leaders have been requesting that the U.N. provide emergency funding and logistics, saying that they are constrained by shortages of equipment and provisions. The U.S. and EU have said they will airlift support and intelligence, but they have not committed any of their own troops.
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