BAMAKA: French air strikes destroyed the home of the leader of an al-Qaeda-linked group in northern Mali as French-led forces advanced on Sunday on the Islamist stronghold of Timbuktu.
The strikes in Kidal came 24 hours after French-led troops seized Gao, the most populated town in Mali's Islamist-controlled arid north. Gao is home to about 60,000 people.
''There were air raids on Islamist bases in Kidal,'' 1500 kilometres north of the capital Bamako, a Malian security source said, adding that the home of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) chief Iyad Ag Ghaly was destroyed.
Kidal has been a bastion of Ansar Dine, whose leader is a former soldier and a Tuareg ex-rebel, who formed the group last year.
France launched a military offensive on January 11 after Islamists captured a central town and pushed deeper into government territory towards the capital.
The French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said the troops, having captured Gao, were advancing on Timbuktu, another town held by al-Qaeda -linked rebels and for centuries a centre of Islamic learning.
French-led forces took Gao from the al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the Islamist groups that for 10 months have controlled northern Mali.
Soldiers from Chad and Niger were expected to arrive in Gao soon, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said. They will be part of a contingent of 1900 African troops who have already arrived to drive out the rebels, aided by the 2500 French soldiers deployed.
In Konna - which was overrun by Islamic fighters on January 10, prompting France to intervene - a clearer picture began to emerge of the fighting. Residents and officials said that at least 11 civilians had been killed in French air strikes.
The charred remains of utes 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. France's sudden entry into the fray has left the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) scrambling to put together an African-led intervention force to help retake the northern half of the country. Mali's army, which has struggled to fight the Islamist groups, has been accused of serious human rights violations.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon on Saturday agreed to refuel French warplanes conducting operations against Islamist militants in Mali, the US military said.
France had previously asked President Barack Obama's administration for refuelling assistance and the outgoing US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, has approved the request, a Pentagon spokesman, George Little, said.
Mr Obama held telephone talks with the French President, Francois Hollande, on Friday during which the two leaders discussed global security concerns and promised to work together to tackle extremism in North Africa.
Agence France-Presse, The New York Times
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