Troops take Timbuktu airport, roads
Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters have won control of the airport and roads leading to the fabled desert city of Timbuktu in northern Mali.
French forces are on the verge of taking control of the historic city as they press their offensive against Islamist rebels, France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius said.
The move marked the latest inroad by the two-week-old French mission to oust radical Islamists from the northern half of Mali, which they seized more than nine months ago.
French and Malian troops have taken control of the city's airport, about 7km from the centre, Mali's army spokesman Colonel Diarran Kone said today.
Fighting alongside Malian and African forces, the French captured another northern town, Gao, 590 miles (950km) north of Bamako over the weekend.
Taking Timbuktu would make Kidal the last of three large northern cities the rebels control.
"Things are going as expected," Mr Fabius said of the French intervention.
"What's important is that Mali, little by little, is liberated,” he said.
France intervened in Mali on January 11th after Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern they might advance to Bamako.
European and US leaders had been warning that northern Mali was turning into a haven for Islamist militants intent on attacking western targets.
Timbuktu is known for three ancient mosques and 16 mausoleums dating as far back as the 15th century and is a designated Unesco site.
Islamist rebels said in July they were destroying historic mausoleums and mosques in the city of because they were "idolatrous".
Several insurgent groups, including Tuareg separatists and al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, seized northern Mali last year after a March coup in the capital.
The French defence ministry has said 3,700 French soldiers are involved in the operation to win back the area, including 2,500 on Malian soil.
West African nations decided to almost double their Mali mission to 5,700 troops,
Mali ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the UN Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.