BAMAKO – French-led troops surrounded Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu on Monday after seizing its airport in a lightning advance against Islamists who have been driven from key northern strongholds.
French paratroopers swooped in to block any fleeing Islamists while ground troops coming from the south seized the airport in the ancient city, which has been one of the bastions of the extremists who have controlled the north for 10 months.
French Army spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the troops, backed up by helicopters, had seized control of the so-called Niger Loop — the area alongside the curve of the Niger River flowing between Timbuktu and Gao — in less than 48 hours.
A fabled town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was for centuries a key center of Islamic learning and has become a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.
The once cosmopolitan town became a dusty outpost for the extremists who forced women to wear veils, whipped and stoned those who violated their version of strict Islamic law, and destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered “idolatrous.”
The advance came a day after French and Malian soldiers seized the town of Gao, east of Timbuktu — the biggest victory so far in their operation against the militants, who have controlled the north for 10 months.
A French armored battalion, Malian troops and soldiers from Niger and Chad were in control of Gao after the fighting Saturday, in which “several terrorist groups were destroyed or chased to the north.” French warplanes carried out some 20 airstrikes Saturday and Sunday.
But a French military official denied a report by a Malian security source that airstrikes farther northeast in the Kidal region had destroyed the home of Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of armed Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
Gao is the biggest of six towns seized by French and Malian troops since they launched their offensive on Jan. 11 to wrest the vast desert north from the Islamists.
France launched its campaign after Islamists captured a central town and threatened to advance on the capital, Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could become a haven for terrorist groups.
French special forces led the assault on Gao, a former bastion of the al-Qaida-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). It is one of the Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali last April in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup.
The Islamists had last year joined forces with an alliance of ethnic Tuareg rebels seeking an independent homeland in the north, first taking Kidal, then Gao and Timbuktu.
They quickly sidelined the Tuaregs, imposing a harsh version of Islamic law that saw offenders flogged, stoned or executed.
Residents fleeing Timbuktu were jubilant in the face of the French advance and denounced the regime the Islamists had imposed on them.
“They beat us up when we smoked or listened to music,” said Amadou Alassane Mega, a young student. “They will have to pay for what they did to us.”
The U.N. said 9,000 people had fled Mali since the launch of the French campaign, bringing the total number of refugees to 150,000, while about 230,000 are internally displaced.
At an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa where leaders discussed increasing troop numbers for an African intervention force, departing chairman and Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi criticized the AU’s slow response.
Defense chiefs from the West African regional grouping ECOWAS agreed Saturday to boost their troop pledges for Mali to 5,700. Chad, which is not a member of the bloc, has promised an extra 2,000 soldiers.
France said Sunday it has now deployed 2,900 troops and that 2,700 African soldiers are on the ground in Mali and Niger, but French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault appealed for more aid for the Mali effort.