French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in a statement that the French troops were “around Gao and soon near Timbuktu,” further 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 the large town further 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, Col. Thierry Burkhard, said on Sunday morning on Europe 1 radio that Malian, Nigerian and Chadian troops were now deploying in Gao after French special forces took the Gao airport 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 under way,” Colonel Burkhard said. French airstrikes 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 Al Jazeera broadcast a statement from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in which the group said it had withdrawn temporarily from some cities it held, but would return with greater force.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 American 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 the past 10 days because mobile phone networks have been down.

Konna was overrun by Islamic fighters on Jan. 10, prompting France to intervene, and a clearer picture has begun to emerge of the fighting. Residents and officials 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.

Because of France’s sudden entry into the fray, the United Nations and the regional trade bloc known as Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, have been scrambling to put together an African-led intervention force that has been in the planning stages. The Mali 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 asphalt separate Konna from the garrison town of Sévaré, 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 who had been guarding the town after a fierce battle.

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.

“We thought there was no way for them to enter into the town,” he said. “But they came in the night. They told us, ‘Tomorrow we will go to Sévaré.’ ”

A woman who lived in his compound was hit by a bullet, he said. They tried to take her to the town clinic, but the doctor had fled. “After two days, she died,” Mr. Traore said.

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 for days. They heard French bombs and rebel bullets ricocheting around the mud-walled dwellings.

“Nobody could get in or out,” Ms. Coulibaly said. “We were so afraid we barely ate or slept.”

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. Some were light-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs, a nomadic people, while others were dark-skinned people who spoke the local languages of Niger, Nigeria and Mali.

Boubacar Diallo, a local political leader, said that only a few rebel fighters came at first. Later, hundreds more joined them, overwhelming the Malian soldiers based here. He said he never saw them pray and scoffed at their assertion that they would teach the Muslim population a purer form of Islam.

“They say they are Muslims, but I don’t know any Muslim who does not pray,” Mr. Diallo said.

The fighters took down the Malian flag and raised a banner of their own, a white piece of paper printed with words in Arabic — “Assembly for the Spiritual Ideology to Purify the African World” — and pictures of machine guns.

After the Islamist fighters fled, Mr. Diallo took it down and replaced it with the Malian flag.

Lydia Polgreen reported from Konna, and Steven Erlanger from Paris. Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington and Scott Sayare from Paris

French Troops in Mali Push On to Timbuktu – New York Times
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