SEVARE, Mali — French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the French mission, now in its third week, gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north since last spring.
French troops have met little resistance, though it remains unclear what may await them farther north. The Malian military blocked dozens of international journalists from trying to travel toward Timbuktu.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s defense 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 said he had no information about the remote town, where phone lines have been cut for days.
A convoy of about 15 vehicles transporting journalists was blocked Sunday afternoon in Konna, about 186 miles 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, another northern provincial capital under the grip of radical Islamists.
Meanwhile, French and African land forces were making their way to Gao from neighboring Niger.
French and Malian forces patrolled Gao on Sunday afternoon, searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Kone, the military spokesman.
French special forces, who had arrived by land and by air, came under fire in Gao from “several terrorist elements” that were later “destroyed,” the French military said in a statement on its Web site Saturday.
In a later news release entitled “French and Malian troops liberate Gao,” the French Ministry of Defense said the troops brought with them the town’s mayor, Sadou Diallo, who had fled to Bamako, far to the west.
However, a Gao official interviewed by telephone said late Saturday that coalition forces controlled only the airport, the bridge and surrounding neighborhoods.
And in Paris, a Defense Ministry official clarified that the city had not been fully liberated and that the process of freeing Gao was continuing.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by al-
Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago, along with the other northern provincial capitals, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The rebel group that turned Gao into a replica of Afghanistan under the Taliban has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, a Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week asserted responsibility for the terrorist attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria.
His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and Afghans.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said late Saturday that the United States will aid the French military with aerial refueling missions and planes to transport soldiers from other African nations.