French and African land forces continue to strengthen their position in northern Mali by taking control of Timbuktu airport and roads surrounding the town.
PARIS — A French military spokesman says French and Malian forces control access to the fabled desert town of Timbuktu.
Col. Thierry Burkhard said French paratroopers and helicopters backed ground forces to gain control Timbuktu's airport and roads into the town overnight into Monday and to allow Malian forces to move in on the stronghold of al-Qaida linked Islamist extremists.
The advance came as French and African ground troops seized a strategic bridge and the airport in the northern city of Gao.
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.
The rebel group that turned Gao into a replica of Afghanistan under the Taliban has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.
His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said late Saturday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has told Le Drian the United States will aid the French military with aerial refueling missions.
U.S. aerial refueling planes would be a boost to air support for French ground forces as they enter vast areas of northern Mali, the size of Texas, that are controlled by al-Qaida-linked extremists.
The U.S. was already helping France by transporting French troops and equipment to the West African nation. However, the U.S. government has said it cannot provide direct aid to the Malian military because the country's democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup last March.
The Malian forces, however, are now expected to get more help than initially promised from neighboring nations.
Col. Shehu Usman Abdulkadir told The Associated Press that the African force will be expanded from an anticipated 3,200 troops to some 5,700 — a figure that does not include the 2,200 soldiers promised by Chad.
Most analysts had said the earlier figure was far too small to confront the Islamists given the huge territory they hold.
"Because they've seen that the area itself, northern Mali is too large for that number of troops so there was a need to increase the number and that's why we arrived at 5,700," said Abdulkadir, the force commander. "I believe that as time goes on it may be necessary to increase the strength again. Because (when) France pulls out we definitely must have to increase the strength."
Since France began its military operation, the Islamists have retreated from three small towns in central Mali: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza.
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