Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s defence minister, declined to give details Sunday about the advance on Timbuktu, citing the security of an ongoing operation.
Timbuktu’s mayor, Ousmane Halle, is in the capital, Bamako, and he told The Associated Press he had no information about the remote town, where phone lines have been cut for days.
A convoy of about 15 vehicles transporting international journalists also was blocked Sunday afternoon in Konna, some 300 kilometres south of Timbuktu.
The move on Timbuktu comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals under the grip of radical Islamists.
Meanwhile, French and African land forces also were making their way to Gao from neighbouring Niger.
French and Malian forces were patrolling Gao Sunday afternoon searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Kone, the Mali military spokesman.
The French special forces, who had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire in Gao from “several terrorist elements” that were later “destroyed,” the French military said in a statement on its website Saturday.
In a later news release entitled “French and Malian troops liberate Gao” the French ministry of defence said they brought back the town’s mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to the Malian capital of Bamako far to the west.
However, a Gao official interviewed by telephone by The Associated Press said late Saturday that coalition forces so far only controlled the airport, the bridge and surrounding neighbourhoods.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of Al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago along with the other northern provincial capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu.
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.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said late Saturday the United States will aid the French military with aerial refuelling missions. U.S. aerial refuelling planes would be a boost to air support for French ground forces as they enter vast areas of northern Mali, controlled by Al Qaeda-linked extremists.
The U.S., like Canada, was already helping France by transporting French troops and equipment to the West African nation. However, Washington has said it cannot provide direct aid to the Malian military because the country’s democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup last March.