French and Mali forces make rapid gains retaking Timbuktu
French and Malian troops were restoring government control over the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu on Sunday, the latest gain in a fast-moving French-led offensive against al Qaeda-allied fighters occupying northern Mali.
The Islamist militant rebels have pulled back northwards to avoid relentless French air strikes that have destroyed their bases, vehicles and weapons, allowing French and Malian troops to advance rapidly with air support and armored vehicles.
A Malian military source said the French and Malian forces reached "the gates of Timbuktu" late on Saturday without meeting resistance from the Islamist insurgents who had held the town since last year.
The French and Malians controlled the airport and were working on securing the town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes, ready to flush out any Islamist fighters still hiding.
"Timbuktu is delicate, you can't just go in like that," the source, who asked not to be named, said.
On Saturday, the French-Malian offensive recaptured Gao, which along with Timbuktu was one of three major northern towns occupied last year by Tuareg and Islamist rebels who included fighters from al Qaeda's North Africa wing AQIM.
The Malian military source, and at least one resident of Gao who travelled south out of the city, said there were still rebel "pockets of resistance" there, and that government troops were carrying out house-to-house searches.
The third town, Kidal, in Mali's rugged and remote northeast, remains in rebel hands.
The United States and Europe are backing the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launch pad for international attacks.
...One of al Qaeda's weaknesses is its inability to hold captured real estate. When it varies from being a strictly insurgent force it starts getting into trouble. Once in command of an area it starts alienating the population with sadistic Shariah rule. Then when outside forces move against it al Qaeda is too weak to withstand the attacks and is left to retreat.