KONNA, Mali -- French special forces took control of the airport at 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 its main strategic points represents the biggest prize yet in the battle to retake the northern half of the country.
French airstrikes have been pounding the city since French troops 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 Sevare 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 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 in Gao, France's 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 to retake the country's northern half, along with the 2,500 French soldiers already deployed here.
Gao's mayor, who had fled to Bamako, the capital, returned to Gao earlier today, Mr. Le Drian said. One of three major cities in northern Mali, Gao had been under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a splinter group of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Al Jazeera broadcast a statement from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in which the group said it had withdrawn temporarily from some cities it held, but would return with greater force.
Timbuktu, the fabled desert oasis, and Kidal, northeast of Gao, have been under rebel control, but little information has come from either place for the past 10 days because mobile phone networks have been down.
Meanwhile, African leaders start a two-day meeting today in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to discuss how to make sure their force has enough resources to sustain a campaign against insurgents who control the north of Mali. The force may cost $300 million a year, the African Union Commission's Peace and Security Director, El-Ghassim Wane, told reporters last week.
Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Benin and Ghana have pledged to contribute troops to the African-led force.
The insurgents took control of northern Mali, including the historic town of Timbuktu, after a coup in March last year by government soldiers complaining that they hadn't received weapons and vehicles to fight the rebels.
Bloomberg News contributed.