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French, Mali forces head toward Timbuktu

SEVARE, Mali — French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north for more than nine months.

So far the French forces have met little resistance from the militants, though it remains unclear what battles may await them farther north. The Malian military blocked dozens of international journalists from trying to travel toward Timbuktu.

Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defense minister, declined to give details Sunday about the advance on Timbuktu, citing the security of an ongoing military operation.

Timbuktu's mayor, Ousmane Halle, is in the capital, Bamako, and he told the Associated Press he had no information about the remote town, where phone lines have been cut for days.

A convoy of about 15 vehicles transporting international journalists also was blocked Sunday in Konna, some 186 miles south of Timbuktu.

The move on Timbuktu comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals under the grip of radical Islamists. French and Malian forces were patrolling Gao Sunday afternoon searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Kone, the Mali military spokesman. Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al-Qaida-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago along with the other northern provincial capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu.

French, Mali forces head toward Timbuktu 01/27/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 27, 2013 10:16pm]

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