The French led troops in Mali have reportedly taken over control of the airport in the key city of Timbuktu, officials say.
French army spokesman Col Thierry Burkhard told the BBC that “substantial airpower” had been used to support about 1,000 French and 200 Malian forces in their offensive against the militants in Timbuktu.
The advance comes as African Union (AU) leaders are meeting to discuss sending more troops to Mali.
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“We control the airport at Timbuktu,” a senior Malian army officer told AFP. “We did not encounter any resistance.”
“Overnight, the French have retaken access points to Timbuktu,” he said.
“The terrorist forces have refused all contact with us. We think they have either gone back into Timbuktu to blend in with the local population or they have fled the city into the north of the country.”
Jazeera reported on Monday that the capture of the airport on Sunday evening was “a major strategic gain” for the French-Mali coalition forces.
“The next stage is to go into the city of Timbuktu, maybe in the early hours tomorrow,” Al Jazeera’s correspondent reported from the airport.
Earlier on Sunday, the French-led forces also seized the Islamic rebels’ stronghold of Gao, northern Mali’s most populous city.
Once Timbuktu is secured, the French-led troops are expected to focus on the last rebel stronghold, Kidal, near the border with Algeria.