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French-Backed Malian Forces Advance on Gao

French soldiers man a checkpoint at the French controlled area of the Bamako airport, January 26, 2013.
French officials say French-backed Malian forces have recaptured the strategic city of Gao, an Islamist militant stronghold in the country's north.

The French defense ministry said Saturday that a contingent of troops from Nigeria and Chad was moving into the city to help maintain stability. The ministry also said the city's mayor, who had sought refuge in the capital, Bamako, was returning.

VOA correspondent Idrissa Fall, who is in Mali, says the military intervention in Gao is significant because the city had become a haven for rebel groups.

"Gao is the most important city in northern Mali. Gao was a kind of capital for the Movement for the Unity of God and Jihad in West Africa and also a capital for Ansar Dine. It was the former capital of the MNLA, those rebel Tuaregs who proclaimed independence," Fall explained.

Earlier Saturday, French and Malian forces regained control of Gao's airport and a nearby bridge. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the forces used an air and ground operation to cut off the logistic and transportation capabilities of the militants.

France began a military offensive in Mali earlier this month, after rebels who seized control of much of the country's north, last year, began pushing toward the capital, Bamako. The rebels have been imposing a strict form of Islamic law on civilians.

Hundreds of troops from West African nations have begun arriving in Mali to help with the intervention.

In another development Saturday, journalists toured the central of Konna which was liberated from rebels earlier this month. Some residents said the French-led intervention had resulted in civilian casualties.

On Friday, French-backed Malian forces fought rebels in Hombori, a town about 250 kilometers from Gao. Also, local officials said the militants bombed a strategic bridge near the border with Niger.

As military operations continue in Mali, defense chiefs from the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS were holding an emergency meeting in the Ivory Coast to discuss Mali's unrest.

A VOA reporter in Abidjan, on Saturday, said Ivory Coast Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi stressed that ECOWAS officials were determined to take the lead on intervention in Mali as soon as possible.

Fall says the arrival of the build-up of West African forces in Mali has been moving at a slow pace.

"Here, people are waiting for the deployment of these African troops and their arrival is really not that much," said Fall. "The Senegalese are here. The Nigerians are here, Benin and Togolese but the deployment of the African troops is very, very, very slow."

ECOWAS Chiefs of Staff are seen during an Extraordinary meeting of ECOWAS on the crisis in Mali, in Abidjan, January 26, 2013.
ECOWAS Chiefs of Staff are seen during an Extraordinary meeting of ECOWAS on the crisis in Mali, in Abidjan, January 26, 2013.
ECOWAS has been discussing plans to send roughly 3,000 troops to Mali as part of a U.N.-backed mission.

Also, African Union representatives have been meeting in Ethiopia to discuss Mali's unrest. The head of the U.S. delegation ((Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Don Yamamoto)) told VOA a political solution is needed alongside military operations in Mali in order to bring stability to the country.

The U.S. has been providing logistical support and equipment to foreign countries involved in operations against militants.