French and Malian troops advancing against Islamist rebels in northern Mali have reached Timbuktu, the fabled Saharan trading town occupied last year by al Qaeda-allied fighters, a Malian military source said on Sunday.
"They've gone past Niafounke and since yesterday evening are at the gates of Timbuktu," the source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters in Bamako. The French and Malians had not so far encountered any resistance from the rebels at Timbuktu.
The source said the advancing troops had paused outside to prepare a strategy for entering the town, a labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes, and for flushing out any Islamist fighters who might still be hiding inside.
The United States and Europe are backing the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.
Following relentless French air strikes against Islamist rebel positions and vehicles, the fast-moving French-led military offensive in Mali on Saturday seized Gao, the largest town in the north which had also been held by the rebels.
Malian and French officials said the mayor of Gao, Sadou Diallo, who had taken refuge in Bamako during the Islamist occupation, had been reinstalled at the head of the local administration while French, Malian, Chadian and Nigerien troops secured the town and the surrounding area.
As the French and Malian troops push into northern Mali, where another major Saharan town, Kidal, also remains in rebel hands, African troops from a continental intervention force expected to number 7,700 are being flown into the country, despite delays due to logistical problems.