BAMAKO // French and Malian forces closed in yesterday on the key cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
A column of more than 100 French vehicles passed the lake at Léré near the border with Mauritania and was pushing forward to Timbuktu, on the western of the two fronts that have emerged in the joint operation to rid northern Mali of Islamist militants.
In the east, the French said they were holding the bridge and airfield captured on Saturday in Gao, and that bombing raids on Friday and Saturday had struck dozens of targets held by extremist groups still holding territory in the north.
Malian troops were heading in a long column towards Gao, passing signs of fighting on the way and being hailed by cheering villagers along the roads.
Islamic courts were set up to administer an extreme form of Sharia in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, after its takeover nine months ago - first by Tuareg forces and then by Islamist extremists.
In the few days before this offensive, there were more than 30 bombing raids. There are now 12 French fighter planes engaged in combat operations, with logistical support coming from countries including the US and the UK.
According to the French ministry of defence, more French soldiers and several hundred Chadian troops were set to be airlifted in yesterday and are likely soon to reach Gao and attempt to hold the city.
However, a western official in the Malian capital of Bamako said that it could take several days before either Timbuktu or Gao was entirely cleared of the Al Qaeda-linked fighters.
Residents say the Islamists no longer have absolute control over the cities since a French aerial campaign began more than two weeks ago, but have by no means disappeared.
The three violent Islamist groups who dominate the conflict - Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa - who coordinate their efforts and are thought to have built entrenched strongholds in caves in remote desert areas, are likely eventually to flee the cities, but the fight against them in the desert is likely to be more drawn out.
The future may also hold the risk of terror attacks in Malian cities. Many of the fighters in the loose extremist alliance are known to have fought in the guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tactics in those conflicts, of bombings, ambushes and attacks on civilians, are something that the international military effort - currently firmly led by the French - will have to be conscious of in coming months. "We have to anticipate that the skills are there," said the official.
France may also be motivated to move as swiftly as possible because of a perception among some influential international Islamic leaders that the intervention, now more than two weeks old, targets Islam and Muslims in an unacceptable way. "The danger of intervention is not that the war will go on for ever," said Bertrand Soret, of the European Union delegation in Bamako. "The problem might be that it could provide a reinforced platform for jihadi rhetoric."
With fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and possibly Nigeria and Libya thought already to be among the cohorts of rebels in the north, there is a fear, he added, that more foreign fighters could eventually join them and present a stubborn resistance to the Malian military and its supporters.
Journalists have been allowed only limited access to the towns vacated by militants, with reports from Konna, south of Gao, suggesting that there is considerable damage within the town from air strikes.
But roads to Douentza, which was occupied for several months by militants, are still closed off, suggesting that the militaries think there are militants still lingering.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press