French and Mali troops seize Gao airport
The French defence minister says French-led forces have wrested control of the airport at the Islamist stronghold of Gao northeast of the Mali capital Bamako.
In a statement, Jean-Yves Le Drian says the airport and a bridge at the southern entrance to the town have been seized from Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Other sources said the Islamists had left the town after the start of a French-led military offensive on January 11 to stop a triad of Al Qaeda-linked groups from pushing down from their northern bastions towards Bamako.
The Islamist groups include MUJAO, Ansar Dine, a homegrown Islamist group, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, of which MUJAO is an offshoot.
Le Drian also says French and Malian troops are continuing their advance towards the north.
Meanwhile, West African defence chiefs are meeting in the Ivorian capital, Abijan, to discuss ways to “boost” an African force to support French and Malian troops.
Saturday's talks will determine exactly how many troops each country in the 15-nation ECOWAS bloc is willing to pledge but "particularly commit to deploying troops as quickly as possible," said Ivorian Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi.
Nearly 1,000 African troops are already on the ground in Bamako and across Mali, Koffi said, out of a total force of 4,500 troops promised by ECOWAS.
The deployment of African forces has been delayed by financing and logistical problems, leaving French and Malian troops to do all of the fighting so far.
Around 2,500 French soldiers are on the ground in Mali. Up to 3,700 are expected.