French troops in northern Mali have launched a new operation against a suspected Islamist militant base near the city of Gao.
A reporter for VOA said Monday that a force of about 1,000 soldiers, backed by tanks, helicopters and drones, is moving against the base in the small town of Bourem.
Al-Qaida-linked militants fled to remote areas after French and Malian government troops drove them out of northern Mali's main cities and towns in a January offensive.
Meanwhile, the president of Niger says the battle against Islamist militants in neighboring Mali is "almost over."
In an interview with VOA, President Mahamadou Issoufou says northern Mali is free and "many terrorists have been eliminated," following the French-led offensive.
He predicts armed militants and drug traffickers will still organize attacks but says "significant results have been achieved."
France has indicated it will begin withdrawing its troops from Mali by the end of this month.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for the deployment of two replacement forces in Mali - one to help stabilize the country and one to continue fighting al-Qaida.
In the interview, Niger's president voiced support for the presence of U.S. troops and drones in Niger. Issoufou says the forces are needed to fight regional terrorism, and says that without the drones, "we are blind."
President Obama has said about 100 U.S. military personnel are in Niger for the purpose of intelligence collection.