French troops engaged in Mali War on Saturday wrestled the City of Gao from the Islamists who were occupying it since last year, and were moving towards Timbuktu, the French defence ministry said, adding that French jet fighters have first seized the airport and later destroyed the house belonging to a local Islamist leader of Ansar-Dine (defenders of religion). The Islamist leader has reportedly fled to Kidal and was being urgently sought by the military.
Gao, the largest city in the north located at some 1200 km from Bamako, was alongside Timbuktu and Kidal the three major northern cities seized by Islamists of Ansar-Dine and Mujao, an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. Gao is now being secured by African troops from Ecowas, 1900 of whom have already arrived in Mali.
A source contacted by Moon of the South from Dakar, Senegal, confirmed to have seen heavily equipped French ground troops alongside their Malian counterparts moving towards the historical city of Timbuktu, which is listed as one of the world heritages by UNESCO.
The Islamists have destroyed several important shrines and mosques – some dating from the 12th century – belonging to the Sufi Islamic communities of Timbuktu, imposing Sharia Law and causing a lot of suffering to the people, according to local reports.
It is believed that the French and Malian ground troops, supported by French jet fighters, have also opened another front in Kidal, a hilly and mountainous city considered as the bastion of Islamist hardliners and an important ‘spiritual’ base for Islamic fundamentalism in the Sahel region.
Meanwhile, African leaders meeting in Addis Ababa for the 20th African Union Summit have reiterated their support for Mali operations and praised France military intervention that stopped the Islamist advance towards the south, including the capital Bamako.
But it was unclear how they would support these operations, whose cost is estimated at 500 million USD and which Ecowas said it did not have. The United States said it will support the Serval Operation by refuelling French planes, and transporting African troops to Mali, whose number is now said to have reached 8000, including 2000 promised by President Idriss Deby of Chad.
Many countries outside Ecowas, including Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, have also agreed to support the Serval operation by contributing troops.
*Image of the City of Gao.