French forces battling Islamist militants in northern Mali have taken a strategic airport near the Algerian border.
The French defense ministry said Friday that special forces have seized the airport at Tessalit, a small town in Mali's Kidal region, and are moving to secure the town itself with the help of Chadian troops.
The airport would give French-led forces another base in their fight against the militants, who have fled into the Sahara after losing control of northern Mali's major cities.
Fighting continued elsewhere in Mali Friday. Outside the city of Gao, a suicide bomber driving a motorcycle blew himself up near a military checkpoint. One soldier was wounded in the blast.
A local journalist, Soumalia Maiga, ran to the scene as soon as he heard the explosion.
He says the explosion happened less than 10 meters from the checkpoint. He says people in the town are afraid to go to the market and some are even afraid to go to the mosque for Friday prayers. He says it is impossible to know whether the bomber was trying to hit the checkpoint or was trying to get inside the town.
The French news agency, AFP, reports that the Islamist group MUJAO claimed responsibility for the attack.
In Mali's capital, Bamako, army soldiers opened fire on an elite paratroopers' camp. A military source tells VOA that one paratrooper was killed and at least six other people wounded.
The paratroopers, known as the Red Berets, were loyal to ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure and had refused assignments to go to the north as part of regular army units.
Foreign Troop Commitments to Mali
France 2,000 on the ground, 500 more committed
Chad to send 2,000
Nigeria to send 1,200
Benin to send 650
Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Togo have committed 500 each
Guinea and Ghana are also sending troops
France wants to begin handing over its four-week-old military operation to the Malian army and African forces. But officials say any transfer will have to wait until Mali's security situation stabilizes.
France has proposed the United Nations establish a peacekeeping mission in Mali. Diplomats have said privately that a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the mission is not likely before the end of February. It could take another two months after that to transition the African forces into U.N. peacekeepers.
The Mali crisis began in early 2012 when the Tuareg separatist group MNLA launched a rebellion in the north. The MNLA and Islamist militants seized control of the north after the March coup in Bamako, but the MNLA was soon swept aside as the militants imposed harsh Islamic law on the region.
At the request of Mali's government, French forces entered the country last month to drive back the al-Qaida-linked militants who had begun moving in the direction of the capital, Bamako.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.