UK & World News
Mali: US Offers Refuelling Services To France
US military aircraft will be used to refuel French warplanes fighting Islamist militants in Mali, the Pentagon has confirmed.
The offer of assistance to the French-led effort to push al Qaeda-linked fighters out of the north of country came as the 16-day offensive enjoyed its biggest success, recapturing the city of Gao.
In an overnight assault backed by French warplanes and helicopters, French special forces seized the town's airport and a key bridge over the River Niger while, killing a number of Islamist fighters without suffering any casualties, the French army said.
"The Malian army and the French control Gao today," Malian army spokesman Lieutenant Diaran Kone said.
Fighting was, however, reported to be continuing in the city, which was seized by a mixture of al Qaeda-linked fighters over nine months ago, into the night.
Sky's special correspondent Alex Crawford, travelling with French troops, said the latest offensive was the biggest push into jihadist-held territory since the operation began.
"There are at least five militant groups waiting for them in and around this desert region.
"Clearly the militants have spotted this huge convoy coming. It is not hard to spot, there are nearly 100 vehicles in the convoy and it takes up more than 1km of space in this pretty barren landscape."
Malian army officers said the Islamist insurgents were pulling back to avoid French air strikes.
"They are all hiding. They are leaving on foot and on motorcycles," Malian Army Captain Faran Keita said in Konna, about 310 miles southeast of Gao.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed the US would offer its support to the operation "to deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali" after speaking to French Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said: "Secretary Panetta informed Minister Le Drian that US Africa Command will support the French military by conducting aerial refuelling missions as operations in Mali continue."
They also discussed plans for the US to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to support the international effort in Mali, he added.
A total of 7,700 African troops are expected to be sent to Mali under a UN mandate, according to regional army chiefs.