PARIS — Malian forces backed by French troops were advancing Sunday toward the crucial northern town of Timbuktu as they begin to deploy in the rebel stronghold of Gao, French officials said.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France said the French troops were “around Gao and soon near Timbuktu,” farther west. Timbuktu has been under the control of rebels and Islamist fighters for 10 months, though there are reports that many of the Islamist fighters have moved farther into the vast desert.
The French are also expected to move on to the large town to the north, Kidal, with the notion of clearing population centers and garrisoning them with allied African troops before the rains are scheduled to come in March.
The capture of the main strategic points on Saturday in Gao represented the biggest prize yet in the battle to retake the northern half of the country. The French Defense Ministry spokesman, Colonel Thierry Burkhard, said Sunday morning on Europe 1 radio that Malian, Nigerian, and Chadian troops were now deploying in Gao after French special forces took the airport in Gao and a strategic bridge on Saturday.
“The taking of control of Gao, which has between 50,000 and 60,000 inhabitants, by Malian, Chadian, and Nigerian soldiers, is underway,’’ Burkhard said.
French air strikes had been pounding Gao since France joined the fight at Mali’s request on Jan. 11. Gao, 600 miles northeast of Bamako, the capital, 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Al-Jazeera broadcast a statement from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in which the group said it had withdrawn temporarily from some cities it held, but would return with greater force.
In Washington, the Pentagon said Saturday that the United States would provide aerial refueling for French warplanes. The decision increases US involvement, which until now had consisted of transporting French troops and equipment and also providing intelligence, including satellite photographs.
Little information has come from the other two main cities under rebel control — Timbuktu, the fabled desert oasis, and Kidal, northeast of Gao — for 10 days because mobile phone networks have been down.
Konna was overrun by Islamist fighters on Jan. 10, prompting France to intervene.
Because of France’s sudden entry into the fray, the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States, the regional trade bloc known as ECOWAS, have been scrambling to put together an African-led intervention force that has been in the planning stages. The Malian army, which has struggled to fight the Islamist groups, has been accused of human rights violations.
Just 35 miles of 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 army troops that had been guarding the town.
Amadou Traore, 29, a tire repairman, said residents had heard that the Islamist rebels had surrounded the town before the attack, but he had been confident that the army would keep them at bay.
Residents said they heard that the fearsome Tuareg leader of the Islamist group Ansar Dine, Iyad ag Ghali, had led the attack on their town, but no one saw him. The rebels spoke many languages, the residents said.