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French forces launch strikes in northern Mali

GOSSI, Mali — French troops launched airstrikes on Islamist militant training camps and arms depots around Kidal and Tessalit in Mali’s far north, French defense officials said Sunday, as the first supply convoy of food, fuel, and parts to eastern Mali headed across the country.

French planes pounded extremist training camps as well as arms and fuel depots from Saturday night into the early hours of Sunday, according to French Army Colonel Thierry Burkhard.

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‘‘It was an important aerial operation to the north of the town Kidal and in the Tessalit region where we targeted logistical depots and Islamist training camps . . . some 20 sites,’’ said Burkhard. He said there were 30 planes used in the operation including Mirage and Rafale jets.

The French intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 to stem the advance of the Al Qaeda-linked fighters.

Though they succeeded in ousting the rebels from the three main northern cities they occupied, including the fabled city of Timbuktu, Sunday’s aerial operation highlights that the French still see militants in the extreme northern area near the border with Algeria a threat.

‘‘Here, there’s still various Islamist groups like the MUJAO, and Ansar Dine,’’ he said, referring to the Islamic extremist group the Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad.

As the French bombarded in the north, they also neared the eastern town of Gao with its first supply convoy since the conflict began.

Crowds along the roads heading northeast from Sevare toward Gao on Sunday thronged the roads screaming ‘‘Vive la France!’’ and old men in long flowing robes on bicycles held onto the handlebars with one hand to wave as as the 62-vehicle convoy spanning 3 miles lumbered by.

Others passed by in carts, sometimes moving faster than the French.

The convoy was near Gossi, about 124 miles southwest of its final destination of Gao on Sunday.

It proceeded slowly because of concerns about land mines between Gossi and Gao. Four Malian soldiers died last week when one exploded, and two others have been found in the vicinity since, said Lieutenant Emmanuel, who gave only his first name in keeping with French military protocol.

The logistics convoy carrying food, fuel, and spare parts for the French military 1,808 miles over ground from Bamako to Gao underscores the logistical difficulties facing the mission in Mali.

‘‘The distances are very long. In Afghanistan we could do it in a day. Now, it’s eight days round trip here,’’ said Lieutenant Emmanuel. The convoy is bringing 15 days worth of supplies, he said.

Still, the successes of the operation were seen alongside the small villages where signs of life were returning to normal, and where there was no visible presence of the Islamic rebels who imposed harsh rule for months.

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