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Segou/Bamako, Mali - French-backed government forces advanced into northern Mali on Friday towards the Islamist rebel stronghold of Gao, recapturing the town of Hombori, as they followed up on relentless French air strikes against the rebels.
Two weeks after France sent troops and aircraft into its West African former colony to block an offensive south by al Qaeda-allied Islamists occupying the north, Mali's army was now on the move as Islamist fighters pulled back from towns.
Malian officials, who said an offensive against Gao could take place in the next few days, said government forces entered Hombori, about 160 km (100 miles) from Gao, late on Thursday.
Gao, with the other Saharan desert towns of Timbuktu and Kidal, has been occupied since last year by an Islamist alliance that includes AQIM, the North African franchise of al Qaeda.
“Our troops supported by French forces entered Hombori yesterday evening without any combat. The Islamists had already deserted the town,” a Malian military officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Mali's national radio said Hombori's inhabitants turned out to cheer the government soldiers as they entered.
Malian officials said French air raids on Thursday hit rebel positions at Ansongo, 95 km (60 miles) south of Gao. This is on the road to neighbouring Niger, where Nigerien and Chadian forces are poised to join the fight against the Islamists.
But in a sign the Islamist rebels could offer resistance, a Malian officer and residents living in the area south of Gao reported they had blown up a bridge at Tassiga, south of Ansongo on the main road that follows the Niger River down to Niger.
Two civilians were reported killed when their vehicle drove off the destroyed bridge, the same sources said.
As French and Malian troops push northeastwards through the farmland and scrub along the Niger River, hundreds of African troops are being deployed behind them, part of an African ground force intended to be the core of an international-backed offensive against Al Qaeda and its allies in north Mali.
There are concerns that this African force, expected to exceed 5,000 and comprised mostly of troops from West African states, lacks sufficient training, equipment and funding.
African heads of state meeting at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa this weekend were expected to discuss these problems and appeal for more international support for the Mali operation from other governments, including China.
France already has 2 500 soldiers on the ground in Mali as part of its Operation Serval (Wildcat) and this number would rise to 3 700 according to the French Defence Ministry.
Western and African leaders say the intervention in Mali is necessary to stop the country's north - a vast lawless tract of desert and mountains that juts into the Sahara - from becoming a safe haven for radical Islamist jihadists seeking to launch international terrorist attacks.
French and Malian forces have over the last week retaken several towns, including Douentza, seized by the Islamist fighters as they attempted to advance towards Mali's southern capital Bamako.
Carefully targeted strikes by French Rafale jets and Gazelle helicopter gunships forced the rebels to pull back from urban areas and avoid being caught in the open in their vehicles.
They have abandoned caches of munitions, including one, at Diabaly in central Mali, found to contain rockets for a Soviet-made BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher, witnesses said.
Despite the optimism now being shown by Malian military commanders, French officials have said that their Islamist opponents appear well-trained and well-equipped, and are likely to resort to hit-and-run guerrilla warfare rather then committing to a conventional battle.
On Thursday, a split emerged in the Islamist militant coalition as one Tuareg leader of the Malian Ansar Dine group announced the creation of a new faction, said he wanted talks and rejected any alliance with AQIM.
The United States and the European Union is helping with the airlift of French troops and equipment to Mali but have ruled out sending any combat troops. An EU mission to help train the Malian army will start next month. - Reuters