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BAMAKO/SEVARE: French and Malian troops were restoring government control over the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu yesterday, the latest gain in a fast-moving French-led offensive against Al Qaeda-allied fighters occupying northern Mali.
The Islamist militant rebels have pulled back northwards to avoid relentless French air strikes that have destroyed their bases, vehicles and weapons, allowing French and Malian troops to advance rapidly with air support and armoured vehicles.
A Malian military source said the French and Malian forces reached “the gates of Timbuktu” late on Saturday without meeting resistance from the Islamist insurgents who had held the town since last year.
The French and Malians controlled the airport and were working on securing the town, a Unesco World Heritage site and labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes, ready to flush out any Islamist fighters still hiding.
“Timbuktu is delicate, you can’t just go in like that,” the source said. On Saturday, the French-Malian offensive recaptured Gao, which along with Timbuktu was one of three major northern towns occupied last year by Tuareg and Islamist rebels who included fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The Malian military source, and at least one resident of Gao who travelled south out of the city, said there were still rebel “pockets of resistance” there, and that government troops were carrying out house-to-house searches. The third town, Kidal, in Mali’s rugged and remote northeast, remains in rebel hands.
The United States and Europe are backing the UN-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state’s inhospitable Sahara desert as a launch pad for international attacks.
One Timbuktu resident now outside the town said a friend inside had sent him SMS messages saying he had seen government troops on the streets, but gave no more details.
Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA, had destroyed ancient shrines in Timbuktu, provoking international outrage. They had also imposed severe Shariah law including amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers.
As the French and Malian troops push into northern Mali, African troops from a continental intervention force expected to number 7,700 are being flown into the country, despite delays due to logistical problems and the lack of airlift capacity.
In the face of the two-week-old French-Malian counter offensive, the rebels seemed to be pulling back north into the trackless desert wastes and mountain fastnesses of the Sahara.
Military experts fear they could carry on a gruelling hit-and-run guerrilla war against the government from there.