French troops on Saturday were in control of parts of Gao, northern Mali’s most populous city, in a sign that the offensive against al Qaida-allied Islamist militants was moving far more quickly than had been expected.
Reinforcements from the African nations of Chad and Niger were moving toward the city from neighboring Niger in a sign that regional troops could start sharing France’s burden in the war months sooner than had been predicted.
The French Defense Ministry, in a statement posted on its website, said that a bridge to Gao and the city’s airport had been captured in an air and land operation Friday evening. Malian forces participated in the offensive, and "terrorist elements" that attacked the French-Malian operation were destroyed, according to the statement.
The French and Malian troops were expected to be bolstered by troops gathering in nearby Niger with experience in desert warfare, including troops from Chad and local Niger forces, the statement said. The African troops were to be airlifted from Niger.
The Islamists, who have controlled northern Mali since last spring, have melted away in the past week under French air strikes and special forces operations after initially advancing in the first days of France’s intervention in Mali, which began Jan. 10.
France since has taken advantage of the rebels’ apparent preference for flight instead of fight when faced with the superior military power. The Islamists mostly have disappeared before French forces arrive, avoiding inch-for-inch street battles for population centers.
For example, by Monday, Islamist forces had deserted the town of Gossi, on the road between Sevare – the base of French and Malian operations – and Gao, according to two village residents, including the district chief.
"After hearing of the withdrawal from Douentza, the armed rebels fled," said local chief Mohammed Sidiya Maiga.
On Monday, about 30 vehicles had sped through the town from the southwest in retreat.
Most of the town’s Arab residents also had fled to nearby Bourkina Faso, fearing retribution at the hands of the Malian military, most of whom are black Africans, Maiga said.
When Maiga spoke by phone on Thursday, no French or Malian forces had advanced on the town. On Friday and Saturday, mobile phones were not reachable, though it would have been unlikely that they didn’t pass through on their way to Gao..
African leaders are embarrassed that a former colonial power was needed to step in and stop further Islamist gains, and the continent’s power brokers are scrambling to pony up a force that can deploy to Mali and theoretically allow the French forces to leave.
The desert nation of Chad already has sent several hundred troops to Niger, which is also contributing 500 troops. Those troops were expected to take positions in Gao.
"Yes, I think," said Marou Amadou, the spokesman for the Niger government, when asked on Saturday evening if Nigerien and Chadian troops had entered into Mali.
"From what I know about the planning of the operation, Nigerien and Chadian forces are moving in," he said.
Nigeria’s air force also has sent planes to Niamey, Niger, but it was not clear whether those aircraft or French aircraft had been used to transport troops to Gao.
Mali’s beleaguered military also received a boost from the return of Tuareg commander Al Haji Ag Gamou and his men, who number a few hundred fighters. Ag Gamou was in charge of Mali’s Kidal garrison in northern Mali when a Tuareg rebellion broke out last year. Rather than fight, he pretended to defect to the rebels but then sped his troops to Niger for safety.
Gao is only 100 miles from Mali’s border with Niger, and Niamey, Niger’s capital, is closer to Gao than Sevare or Mali’s capital, Bamako.
Many experts expect the rebels to regroup in the caves and mountains of northeastern Mali, where they are less vulnerable to air and ground attacks. French officials have not said whether French troops will pursue them that far.