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SEGOU/BAMAKO, Mali: French-backed government forces advanced into northern Mali towards the Islamist rebel stronghold of Gao yesterday, recapturing the town of Hombori and forcing Al Qaeda-allied fighters to pull back under relentless French air strikes.
France sent troops and aircraft to its former colony two weeks ago to block a southward offensive by Islamists occupying Mali’s north. French and Malian troops have been pushing forward on either side of the Niger River, securing several farming towns recaptured over the last week.
Leaders gathered at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa appealed for logistical support, supplies and funding from the international community to allow a nearly 6,000-strong African ground force to deploy fully.
Malian officials said government forces entered Hombori, about 160km southwest of Gao, late on Thursday and said an offensive against Gao could take place in the next few days. Gao, with the other Saharan desert towns of Timbuktu and Kidal, has been occupied since last year by an Islamist alliance that includes Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the north African franchise of Al Qaeda.
The United States and the European Union are 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. Britain said it was sending a Sentinel manned surveillance aircraft to assist the campaign.
Malian officials said French air raids hit rebel positions at Ansongo, 95km south of Gao. But in a sign of Islamist rebel resistance, a Malian officer and residents living in the area south of Gao reported the militants had blown up a bridge at Tassiga, south of Ansongo, on the road following the Niger River down to Niger. Reuters