After driving rebels out of many of their strongholds across Mali, French and Malian troops are preparing to advance on rebel-held Timbuktu, news sources report.
Al Jazeera reported that Malian troops had captured Timbuktu Airport late on Sunday. Jacky Rowland, reporting from the airport tarmac, said they would advance into the town in the coming hours, in order to drive out Islamist militants.
Earlier in the day, French-led troops had taken the northern town of Gao, according to Reuters. Reuters also reported that French and Malian forces were already clearing rebel fighters from Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its ancient mud-brick mosques and libraries of medieval manuscripts.
The fabled desert town has been in rebel hands for more than nine months, according to The Huffington Post.
France's military intervention in its former North African coloney began in early January, at the request of Mali's government, after militants advanced on the central Malian town of Konna. Since then, the French have been pounding the militants with airstrikes and leading the fight to bring all of Mali under government control.
The French and Malian forces had faced little resistance in their push into rebel-held northern Mali, said The Huffington Post. However, there are fears that the conflict will turn into a guerrilla war, as al-Qaida-backed militants regroup in the face of the overwhelming attack on their territory, Reuters reported.
Violent reprisals have also been reported by Reuters against Malians in the north suspected of being sympathetic towards rebel groups, raising fears that human rights abuses will be committed by western-backed forces.
"Yesterday, even, we found one hiding in a house. We cut his throat," a resident of Gao told Reuters, saying how one suspected rebel was dealt with. The man asked not to be named.