France claims key stronghold in northern Mali

The northern town of Gao had been controlled by Movement for Oneness and Jihad for months

France is celebrating a breakthrough in its war against Islamists in Mali, after capturing the airport and a key bridge in the northern town of Gao.

The Islamists first captured Gao, as well as Timbuktu and Kidal, in April last year during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the capital Bamoko.

But fighter jets dropped bombs over the town over the past two days, before joint air-land operations last night claimed the stronghold.

The news comes two weeks after President Francois Hollande launched the military offensive to wrest control of the troubled African country's north from al-Qa'ida-linked militants. Until today the closest French troops had got was Hombori, a town 155 miles south-west of Gao.

Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris, said French and Malian forces came under fire this morning and continued to face sporadic "acts of harassment," in the afternoon. He had no immediate estimate on casualties.

Troops from Chad and Niger will soon arrive in Gao, which had been controlled by Movement for Oneness and Jihad for months. Currently 1,750 troops from neighbouring African countries are involved in the fighting, also including Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin.

Since France began its military operation two weeks ago with a barrage of air strikes followed by a land assault, the Islamists have retreated from three central cities of Diabaly, Konna and Douentza. 

The French currently have about 2,500 forces in Mali and have said that they will stay as long as needed in their former colony. However, they have called for African nations to take the lead in fortifying the Malian army's efforts.