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French military says it secures access to Timbuktu

7:03 AM, Jan 28, 2013   |    comments
A Malian family's taxi is searched at a checkpoint on the Gao road outside Sevare, some 385 miles north of Mali's capital Bamako on Jan. 27 (Photo: Jerome Delay, AP)
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SEVARE, Mali - Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters took control of the airport and roads leading to the fabled desert town of Timbuktu in an overnight operation, a French military official said Monday.

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.

Col. Thierry Burkhard said Monday that the town's airport was taken without firing a shot.

"There was an operation on Timbuktu last night that allowed us to control access to the town," he said Monday. "It's up to Malian forces to retake the town."

The Timbuktu operation comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in a city east of Timbuktu, Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals that had been under the grip of radical Islamists.

Residents of the northern Malian city of Gao are celebrating the arrival of French and Malian forces.

The French-led mission entered Gao over the weekend and took control of the airport and a major bridge and patrolled the town.

Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, had been under the grip of radical Islamists for nearly 10 months.

Gao resident Hassane Maiga, reached on the phone, said jubilant residents joyously greeted the French and Malian troops.

Timbuktu, which has entranced travelers for centuries with its inaccessible mystique, is some 620 miles northeast of Bamako. During their rule, the militants have systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites in the ancient town.

The Islamists seized control of the north after a military coup last March created chaos. So far the French have met little resistance though it remains to be seen whether the Malians can maintain control of the towns.

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Associated Press

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