GAO, Mali — Residents in Mali's newly liberated city of Gao hunted down and beat suspected Islamist extremists who had not fled with their brothers-in-arms as Malian and French military forces closed in and retook the town.
Malian troops bundled the men into an army truck Tuesday, their hands bound behind their backs. For most of a year, al-Qaida-linked extremists had banned music, insisted women cover themselves and began carrying out public executions and amputations in the towns of northern Mali that they controlled.
Now the Islamists' control of the cities has slipped, with the provincial capitals of Gao and Timbuktu coming back under government authority in quick succession with the arrival of French and Malian troops. The militants also may have lost control of a third key city, Kidal.
France, the former colonial ruler, began sending in troops, helicopters and warplanes Jan. 11 to turn the tide after the armed Islamists began encroaching on the south, toward the capital. French and Malian troops seized Gao during the weekend, welcomed by joyous crowds. They took Timbuktu on Monday. The Islamists gave up both cities and retreated into the desert.
But not all of them left.
Members of a youth militia, the Gao Patrolmen, went house to house hunting down suspected Islamic extremists in Gao. Abdul Karim Samba, spokesman for the group, said men were searching for remnants of the extremist Islamist group known as the Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad.
Troops from Chad, one of the African nations sending soldiers to help restore Malian government control over the whole country, patrolled the streets, and French soldiers joined overnight patrols. The city market was slowly returning to normal.
On Tuesday, Tuareg fighters from a secular rebel group said they were now in charge of Kidal, 170 miles to the northeast of Gao.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad — Azawad is the Tuaregs' name for their homeland — appears to have taken advantage of the French-led military offensive to assert themselves in Kidal. The loss of Kidal would mean the Islamists no longer control any of the northern provincial capitals that they seized last April.
African and Western nations pledged more than $450 million Tuesday to fund an African-led military force to continue the fight against the Islamist extremists in Mali.
The French military operation has so far met little resistance though experts warn it will be harder to hold on to the towns than it was to recapture them.