KONNA, Mali -- French special forces took control of the airport in the Islamic rebel stronghold of Gao, the French government said Saturday, meeting "serious resistance" from militants even as they pressed northward.
Gao is one of three main northern cities in Mali that has been under rebel control for months, and the capture of the main strategic points in Gao represents the biggest prize yet in the battle to retake the northern half of the country.
French airstrikes have been pounding the city since France joined the fight at Mali's request on Jan. 11. French troops also took control of a bridge over the Niger River on Saturday, and the capture of the airport allowed a company of French soldiers to be airlifted in on Saturday afternoon, according to Col. Thierry Burkhard, the French military spokesman.
Another French company was on the road to Gao from Sévaré on Saturday night, and Malian and other African forces had begun to arrive, he said.
He stepped back from an earlier statement by the French Defense Ministry that declared the city freed by French forces, acknowledging that the statement was "a bit overdone." Noting Gao's 70,000 inhabitants, he added, "it's not with a detachment of special forces that you take over a city."
But with reinforcements streaming in, the battle for Gao appeared imminent.
Soldiers from Chad and Niger are expected to arrive soon, the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said in a statement. They will be part of a contingent of 1,900 African troops who have already arrived in Mali, fighting alongside the 2,500 French soldiers deployed here.
Gao's mayor, who had fled to Bamako, the capital, returned to his city on Saturday, Mr. Le Drian said.
In Washington, the Pentagon said Saturday that the United States would provide aerial refueling for French warplanes. The decision increases American involvement, which until now had consisted of transporting French troops and equipment and also providing intelligence, including satellite photographs.
Gao, 600 miles northeast of the capital, had been under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a splinter group of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Al Jazeera broadcast a statement from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in which the group said it had withdrawn temporarily from some cities it held, but would return with greater force.
Little information has come from the other two main cities under rebel control -- Timbuktu, the fabled desert oasis, and Kidal, northeast of Gao -- for the past 10 days because mobile phone networks have been down.
Konna was overrun by Islamic fighters on Jan. 10, prompting France to intervene, and a clearer picture has begun to emerge of the fighting. Residents and officials here said that at least 11 civilians had been killed in French airstrikes.
Charred husks of pickup trucks lined the road into the town, and broken tanks and guns littered the fish market, where the rebels appeared to have set up a temporary base.
Because of France's sudden entry into the fray, the United Nations and the regional trade bloc known as Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, have been scrambling to put together an African-led intervention force that has been in the planning stages. The Mali Army, which has struggled to fight the Islamist groups, has been accused of serious human rights violations.
From Konna, it is easy to see why the Malian government pleaded for French help after the Islamist fighters took control of the town. Just 35 miles of asphalt separate Konna from the garrison town of Sévaré, home to the second-biggest airfield in Mali and a vital strategic point for any foreign intervention force.
Residents said their town fell to the rebels when 300 pickup trucks of fighters, bristling with machine guns, rolled in and pushed back the Malian Army troops who had been guarding the town after a fierce battle.
Amadou Traore, 29, a tire repairman, said residents had heard that the Islamist rebels had surrounded the town before the attack, but he had been confident that the army would keep them at bay.
"We thought there was no way for them to enter into the town," he said. "But they came in the night. They told us, 'Tomorrow we will go to Sévaré.' "
A woman who lived in his compound was hit by a bullet, he said. They tried to take her to the town clinic, but the doctor had fled. "After two days, she died," Mr. Traore said.
Baro Coulibaly fled her house along the main road into town, moving with her husband and six children to the relative safety of the town center, where they stayed with her in-laws for days. They heard French bombs and rebel bullets ricocheting around the mud-walled dwellings.
"Nobody could get in or out," Ms. Coulibaly said. "We were so afraid we barely ate or slept."
Residents said they heard that the fearsome Tuareg leader of the Islamist group Ansar Dine, Iyad ag Ghali, had led the attack on their town, but no one saw him. The rebels spoke many languages, the residents said. Some were light-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs, a nomadic people, while others were dark-skinned people who spoke the local languages of Niger, Nigeria and Mali.
Boubacar Diallo, a local political leader, said that only a few rebel fighters came at first. Later, hundreds more joined them, overwhelming the Malian soldiers based here. He said he never saw them pray and scoffed at their assertion that they would teach the Muslim population a purer form of Islam.
"They say they are Muslims, but I don't know any Muslim who does not pray," Mr. Diallo said.
The fighters took down the Malian flag and raised a banner of their own, a white piece of paper printed with words in Arabic -- "Assembly for the Spiritual Ideology to Purify the African World" -- and pictures of machine guns.
After the Islamist fighters fled, Mr. Diallo took it down and replaced it with the Malian flag.
Lydia Polgreen reported from Konna, and Scott Sayare from Paris. Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.