KONNA, Mali - French forces in Mali have seized the airport and the bridge over the Niger River at the Islamist rebel-held stronghold of Gao, the French Defence Ministry said Saturday.
French and Malian forces have advanced rapidly against Islamist militant fighters holding the Saharan north of the West African state after France intervened earlier this month at the request of the Malian government.
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday the U.S. would conduct aerial refueling missions in support of France's operations there. The U.S. has already transported French troops and gear to Mali.
On Friday, al-Qaida-allied fighters were forced to pull back under relentless French air strikes and the town of Hombori, about 100miles southwest of Gao, was recaptured.
French and Malian troops have been pushing forward on either side of the Niger River, securing several farming towns recaptured over the last week.
Gao, with the other Saharan desert towns of Timbuktu and Kidal, has been occupied since last year by an Islamist alliance that includes AQIM, the north African franchise of al-Qaida.
NBC's Richard Engel expects a support role for the U.S. in the current conflict in Mali with no "boots on the ground." Engel talks to MSNBC's Craig Melvin about the ongoing conflict.
Mali's national radio said Hombori's inhabitants turned out to cheer the government soldiers.
Western and African leaders say the U.N.-backed intervention in Mali is necessary to stop the country's north - a vast, lawless tract of desert and mountains that juts into the Sahara - from becoming a safe haven for radical Islamist jihadists seeking to launch international attacks.
A Malian officer and residents living in the area south of Gao reported Thursday that the militants had blown up a bridge at Tassiga, south of Ansongo, on the road following the Niger River down to Niger.
Two civilians were reported killed when their vehicle drove off the destroyed bridge, the same sources said.
NBC News' Gil Aegerter contributed to this report.