The Malian and French forces have taken control of Wabaria bridge and the Gao international airport, civilian sources in Gao told Xinhua on Saturday.
Early this week, the Malian forces and their French allies began the second phase of their operation to recapture the two regional capitals of Timbuktu and Gao that came under control of the Islamist rebels earlier 2012.
The airport is about six kilometers east of Gao and the bridge is at the southern gate of the city. The control of the two sites is strategically on an upper hand position for the coalition forces in the fight against the al Quida-backed rebels.
Besides the Gao airport, the locality of Lere is also under control of the Malian army which is advancing with the French support towards Timbuktu in the Western part near the border with Mauritania.
Supported with airstrikes by the French forces on the rebel strongholds, the coalition forces are advancing quickly since the launch of offensives against the rebels who occupied the northern part of Mali in earlier 2012.
Since Jan. 11, the Malian-French troops have liberated several towns starting from Kanno in central Mali, pushing back the rebel forces to the north.
The rebels had overrun the Malian army since January last year when the conflict started sparked by call for political autonomy of the northern Mali region of Azawad, an area inhabited by the Tuareg people.
The rebels took control of that region in April last year and advanced to take over several other cities including the worldly known cultural site of Timbuktu. The conflict worsened when the country’s President Amadou Toumani Toure was ousted in a coup by mutinous soldiers in last March.
The United Nations has authorized the deployment of a 3,300- strong force under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But according to the African Union’s peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra, that force needs to be strengthened to better respond to the challenges facing the country.
The commissioner is expected to plead for a stronger force at the 20th AU Summit at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa this weekend.
While the ECOWAS defense ministers are meeting in Abdjian to review the situation in Mali and consider military reenforcement in the country, Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru told Xinhua at the AU Headquarters in Ethiopia on Saturday that five non-ECOWAS nations in Africa — South Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania, Chad and Burundi — have agreed to contribute troops to the International Mission of Support to Mali.