Fighters from the Islamic militant group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa ride on a truck in the northeastern Malian city of Gao.

Bamako - French-led forces Saturday wrested control of the airport at the Islamist stronghold of Gao, 1 200 kilometres (750 miles) northeast of the Mali capital Bamako, a security source said.

“Malian and French security forces have secured the airport of Gao and the Wanbary bridge. The two strategic points are under their control,” the Malian source said.

The airport is located about six kilometres east of Gao while the bridge lies on the southern entrance to the town, held by the Al Qaeda-linked Movement for Jihad and Oneness (MUJAO) since June.

The security source did not mention any fighting.

Other sources said the Islamists had left the town after the start of a French-led military offensive on January 11 to stop a triad of Al Qaeda-linked groups from pushing down from their northern bastions towards Bamako.

In April last year, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal were seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels Ä who wanted to declare an independent homeland in the north Ä and hardline Islamist groups.

The Islamist groups include MUJAO, Ansar Dine, a homegrown Islamist group, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, of which MUJAO is an offshoot.

The Islamists quickly sidelined the Tuaregs to implement their own Islamic agenda. They imposed a harsh interpretation of sharia law, flogging, stoning and executing transgressors, forbidding music and television and forcing women to wear veils. - Sapa-AFP