KONNA, Mali — French forces took control of the Islamic rebel stronghold of Gao, the French government said Saturday, winning the biggest prize yet in the battle to retake the northern half of Mali.
Gao, which lies 600 miles northeast of the capital, Bamako, has for months been under the control of one of several Islamist groups seeking to overrun Mali. French warplanes have been pounding the city since France joined the fight at Mali’s request on Jan. 11.
French troops took control of the city and handed it over to the Malian Army to secure, according to the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Soldiers from Chad and Niger are expected to arrive soon in Gao, Le Drian said in a statement. They will be part of a contingent of 1,900 African troops who have arrived in Mali to drive out the rebels, aided by the 2,500 French soldiers deployed here.
Gao’s mayor, who had fled to Bamako, returned on Saturday, Le Drian said. One of three major cities in northern Mali, Gao had been under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a splinter group of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Al-Jazeera broadcast a statement from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in which the group said it had withdrawn temporarily from some cities it held but would return with greater force.
Timbuktu, the fabled desert oasis, and Kidal, northeast of Gao, have been under rebel control, but little information has come from either place for the past 10 days because mobile phone networks have been down.
In Konna — which was overrun by Islamic fighters on Jan. 10, prompting France to intervene — a clearer picture began to emerge of the fighting. Residents and officials here said that at least 11 civilians had been killed in French airstrikes.
Charred husks of pickup trucks lined the road into the town, and broken tanks and guns littered the fish market, where the rebels appeared to have set up a temporary base.
France’s sudden entry into the fray has left the United Nations and ECOWAS, the regional trade bloc, scrambling to put together an African-led intervention force to help retake the northern half of the country. Mali’s army, which has struggled to fight the Islamist groups, has been accused of serious human rights violations.
From Konna, it is easy to see why the Malian government pleaded for French help after the Islamist fighters took control of the town. Just 35 miles of smooth asphalt separate Konna from the garrison town of Sevare, home to the second-biggest airfield in Mali and a vital strategic point for any foreign intervention force.
Residents said their town fell to the rebels when 300 pickup trucks of fighters, bristling with machine guns, rolled in and pushed back the Malian troops who had been guarding the town after a fierce battle.
Baro Coulibaly fled her house along the main road into town, moving with her husband and six children to the relative safety of the town center, where they stayed with her in-laws.
They hunkered down for days, hearing the sound of French bombs and rebel bullets ricocheting around the mud-walled dwellings.