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Last Updated: Sun, 27.01.13 8:50

Malian-French forces recapture Mali's biggest northern town

The Malian and French forces on Saturday said they have recaptured Gao, the biggest northern town, after a series of counter-offensives against rebels in the past two weeks.

The biggest ever gain on the ground was announced by allied forces after an overnight bombing by French warplanes on rebel positions and sporadic street fighting. Dozens of rebels were killed in the battle over the town.

Mayor of Gao Sadou Diallo would arrive in the town from the Malian capital Bamako in the day, according to the French military.

Reinforcements were reported to consolidate the control of Gao, including 350 Malian soldiers. Chadian and Nigerien troops, who are known for experience in desert warfare, would reach Gao "very soon," the same source said.

The Malian and French troops took control of Wabaria bridge and the Gao international airport before seizing the town.

Early this week, the Malian forces and their French allies began the second phase of their operation to recapture the two regional capitals of Timbuktu and Gao that came under control of the Islamist rebels earlier 2012.

The airport is about six kilometers east of Gao and the bridge is at the southern gate of the city. The control of the two sites is strategically on an upper hand position for the coalition forces in the fight against the al Quida-backed rebels.

Besides the Gao airport, the locality of Lere is also under control of the Malian army which is advancing with the French support towards Timbuktu in the Western part near the border with Mauritania.

Supported with airstrikes by the French forces on the rebel strongholds, the coalition forces are advancing quickly since the launch of offensives against the rebels who occupied the northern part of Mali in earlier 2012, including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

Since Jan. 11, the Malian-French troops have liberated several towns starting from Kanno in central Mali, pushing back the rebel forces to the north.

The rebels had overrun the Malian army since January last year when the conflict started sparked by call for political autonomy of the northern Mali region of Azawad, an area inhabited by the Tuareg people.

The rebels took control of that region in April last year and advanced to take over several other cities including the worldly known cultural site of Timbuktu. The conflict worsened when the country's President Amadou Toumani Toure was ousted in a coup by mutinous soldiers in last March.

The United Nations has authorized the deployment of a 3,300- strong force under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But according to the African Union's peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra, that force needs to be strengthened to better respond to the challenges facing the country.

The commissioner is expected to plead for a stronger force at the 20th AU Summit at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa this weekend.

Latest reports said the AU is set to send almost 6,000 troops to Mali to help restore its territorial integrity.

While the ECOWAS defense ministers are meeting in Abdjian to review the situation in Mali and consider military reenforcement in the country, Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru told Xinhua at the AU Headquarters in Ethiopia on Saturday that five non-ECOWAS nations in Africa -- South Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania, Chad and Burundi -- have agreed to contribute troops to the International Mission of Support to Mali.

"This pledge is significant because it comes from non West African nations and show that Africans are ready to deal with this problem," said the Nigerian minister. It was not clear when the troops will start operations in Mali but the minister said the deployment will be immediate.

"We have agreed that the African Union should not allow any of its territories to be used by criminal gangs and terrorists to terrorize citizens," stressed Olubenga Ashiru. "Today it is Mali, tomorrow it will be another country. This must be stopped immediately."

Previously, members of the ECOWAS had pledged 3,300 troops to the Mali conflict and Chad also agreed to dispatch 1,200 persons to join the multinational operations in Mali.

"All our troops are already on the ground in Mali but some of the ECOWAS members have been facing logistical problems delivering their troops. The regional plan we are working on will ensure that all the troops pledged be in Mali in the next two weeks," the Nigerian minister said.

ECOWAS has also instructed Mali's neighbors Algeria, Mauritania and Libya to close their borders with the country to prevent the rebels from escaping to those territories.

Bamako (Xinhua)