FRENCH, MALI FORCES RETAKE AIRPORT FROM AL QAEDA-LINKED TERRORISTS

Fox News on January 26, 2013, published an AP report that French and Malian troops regained control of the airport and bridge of the crucial, northern city of Gao , marking their biggest advance yet in their bid to oust Al Qaeda-linked extremists who have controlled northern Mali for months, military officials said. Excerpts below:

The move comes just two weeks after France launched its military offensive in support of the shaky, central government of this former French colony. It is unclear what kind of resistance French and Malian troops will face in the coming days.

The French military said in a statement on its website that their special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire from “several terrorist elements” that were later “destroyed.”

Swooping in under the cover of darkness, the French and Malian forces faced sporadic “acts of harassment” during the day, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris. He had no immediate estimate on casualties.

Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of Al Qaeda-linked fighters more than nine months ago, and the battle to retake the city is expected to be tough.

The rebel group that turned Gao into a replica of Afghanistan under the Taliban has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.

His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.

The French assault began with the capture of the airport, a strategic landing strip that opens the way for easier sorties all over northern Mali.

The further capture of a major bridge leading into the town means that the jihadists “saw their means of transport and their logistics sites destroyed,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.

The operation in Gao comes at the same time as airstrikes in the two other provincial capitals held by the extremists — the cities of Timbuktu and Kidal, which like Gao fell to the rebels last April, during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the distant capital. Nearly 30 bombs have been fired from fighter jets over the past two days, said France’s military in a communique.

The Pentagon said late Saturday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has told Le Drian the U.S. will aid the French military with aerial refueling missions.

U.S. aerial refueling planes would be a boost to air support for French ground forces as they enter areas of Mali that are controlled by Al Qaeda-linked extremists.

The U.S. was already helping France by transporting French troops and equipment to the West African nation.

French and Malian forces are also heading to Timbuktu, via the central corridor that leads straight north from the central Malian city of Segou, via the recently recaptured town of Diabaly.

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