“Everyone is in the streets,” a Gao resident, Ibrahim Touré, said in a telephone interview. “It is like a party. There is music. There are drums. It’s freedom.”

Their celebrations came as international forces trying to recapture northern Mali, which has been seized by a mosaic of heavily armed Islamist groups, deployed into Gao, one of the principal militant strongholds, French officials said Sunday. Malian forces backed by French troops also advanced toward another crucial northern town: the ancient city of Timbuktu.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France said 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, although there are reports that many of the Islamists have moved farther into the vast desert to escape the advancing forces.

In Gao, people who had been under occupation for nearly a year by Islamist fighters flooded the streets in jubilation, weeping and shouting to welcome the Malian and French troops who arrived in force on Sunday, residents said.

If it can be held, the capture of Gao will be the biggest strategic victory in the battle to retake northern Mali, which began this month when French forces entered the fight to blunt a sudden militant push toward the capital, Bamako.

Gao is the most populous city in Mali’s north, and it endured months of repression under fighters aligned with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The city’s residents were subject to strict rules and harsh punishment, including amputations for suspect thieves and public beatings or whippings for perceived violations of Islamic law.

Fatou Cissé, a Gao resident reached by telephone, said crowds were chanting “Vive la France!” and singing the Malian national anthem.

“I was out there with them,” said Ms. Cissé, who said she was wearing bright wax-print fabric with short sleeves, the kind of clothing that was banned when the city was under militant control.

“My head is not covered,” she said. “Girls are out of the house, and they are dancing.”

Several Gao residents confirmed that a joint French and Malian military convoy toured the city at around 4 p.m. on Sunday. Mr. Touré said heavy bombing began late Friday evening and continued into Saturday morning.

“The explosions were big,” Mr. Touré said, suggesting that the French were targeting rebel fuel depots and arms caches.

Mr. Touré, who grows vegetables for a living, recalled Islamist fighters stealing the small water pump on which his livelihood depended. He said he had been waiting for this day but thought it would be months — possibly years — before it arrived.

“I could not have asked for anything more,” he said. “But now, it is time to fix things, to rebuild our lives and our city.”

The French are also expected to move on to another large town, Kidal, with the notion of clearing the fighters from population centers and garrisoning them with allied African troops before the rainy season begins in March.

The Pentagon said over the weekend that the United States would provide aerial refueling for French warplanes and that it would transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo. The American military has already begun transporting a 600-member French mechanized battalion to Mali and is providing intelligence information, including satellite imagery. 

Journalists from France 24, a cable television network, reported that they were alongside French and Malian troops at the edge of Timbuktu, the fabled desert oasis and crossroads of ancient desert caravan routes.

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting, from Paris and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington.

With Fighters Gone, Malians Welcome Normal Days – New York Times
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