Gao has been under the control of the al-Qaida-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), for months.

French forces took control of the airport and a key bridge in the radical Islamist stronghold of Gao early on Saturday, marking a significant inroad into the heart of territory held by the al-Qaeda-linked extremists.

The move comes just two weeks after France launched its military offensive to rout the Islamists from power in northern Mali. French and Malian forces came under fire in the morning and continued to face sporadic “acts of harassment”, in the afternoon, said Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman in Paris. The Islamists first seized control of Gao and two other northern provincial capitals Timbuktu and Kidal in April last year during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the distant capital.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced in a statement from his ministry on Saturday that jihadist fighters who encountered the advancing French and Malian troops “saw their means of transport and their logistics sites destroyed”.

Nouhoum Maiga, a Deputy Mayor in Gao, confirmed Saturday that the French had come by land and air late on Friday.

Gao has been under the control of the al-Qaida-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), for months.

On Friday, in a show of might, the Islamist radicals destroyed a bridge near the Niger border with explosives, showing that the extremists still remain a nimble and daunting enemy.

Since France began its military operation two weeks ago with a barrage of airstrikes followed by a land assault, the Islamists have retreated from three cities in central Mali — Diabaly, Konna and Douentza.

The Islamists, though, have maintained control of the majority of the territory in Mali’s north, most importantly the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

The announcement that Gao’s airport had been taken marked the first official confirmation that French and Malian forces had reached the city. The French currently have about 2,500 forces in the country and have said that they will stay as long as needed in Mali, a former French colony. However, they have called for African nations to take the lead in fortifying the Malian army’s efforts.

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