Malian forces push north toward Islamist stronghold Gao

SEGOU, Mali Fri Jan 25, 2013 10:03am GMT

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SEGOU, Mali (Reuters) - Government forces advanced into northern Mali on Friday and reached the town of Hombori, some 160 km (100 miles) south of the Islamist rebel stronghold of Gao, after French air strikes drove back the militants, military sources said.

The sources on the ground, who declined to be identified, said the Malian army had moved forward after taking the central town of Douentza on Monday.

"We have taken Douentza and are now moving into other rebel-held towns," Defence Ministry spokesman Diaran Kone told Reuters, without providing further details.

For nearly two weeks, French aircraft have bombarded rebel positions, vehicles and stores in the centre and north of Mali as a ground force of African troops assembles to launch a U.N.-backed military intervention.

On Thursday, around 160 troops from Burkina Faso deployed in the dusty central Malian town of Markala - the first West African troops to link up with French and Malian forces. France has some 2,150 troops on the ground.

France has repeatedly warned that the Islamist enclave in north Mali could be a launch pad for attacks on Europe and Africa. Western powers, including the United States and Britain, have provided air transport and surveillance for the mission but are not planning to contribute combat forces.

(Reporting By Richard Valdmanis; writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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