West African nations agreed Saturday to increase the number of troops being sent to support the Malian government in its fight against jihadist groups, while Malian and French troops took control of the airport and main bridge in the strategic city of Gao, DPA reported.
ECOWAS leaders gathered in the Ivory Coast decided to increase the bloc's military assistance in Mali to up to 7,700 soldiers from an earlier agreed 3,300 troops, Ivoirian General Soumaila Bakayoko told the APA news agency.
So far 1,750 soldiers from neighbouring west African nations have arrived in Mali, with Chad and Niger contributing the most troops at 550 each.
Meanwhile, Malian and French troops made advance in Gao, which has been held by jihadist groups since June, France's Defence Ministry said.
"French forces have gained control of the airport and bridge in Gao, in the north-east of Mali," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement, adding that numerous rebel bases and vehicles in the city were destroyed.
Malian military spokesperson Diarran Kone was unable to confirm the development to dpa.
A resident of Douentza, about 400 kilometres west of Gao, had told dpa over the phone earlier on Saturday that Malian troops were approaching Gao.
"The team who had been in Douentza went in the direction of Gao, while troops came here from Sevare to take over Douentza," said Niali Bouly.
On the western front, French military spokesman Emmanuel Dosseur said troops were at Lere, about 440 kilometres south of of Timbuktu.
Witnesses also spoke of a large military presence in Sevare, 570 kilometres south of rebel-held Gao.
"The French are everywhere here in Sevare. Some of their troops left yesterday for the north toward Gao," resident Buba Traore told dpa.
Malian troops with the support of French forces have been battling militias in the country for two weeks.
The European Union said Saturday it would likely begin sending military instructors to train Malian troops in mid-February, with all 200 to 250 trainers on site by mid-March.
While the fight to reclaim the north from radical Islamists continued, Mali's leaders agreed on the first steps for a post-conflict political roadmap late Friday.
Mali's council of ministers agreed on a transitional roadmap calling for the re-establishment of the country's territorial integrity and for transparent elections to be held, according to the president's office.
While the document lacks a timeframe, it says the government aims at liberating rebel-occupied areas, establishing security, and restructuring the army and improving its equipment.
Meanwhile, one of the rebel groups, the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa, said it was ready to negotiate the release of a French national, according to BFM television.
Gilberto Rodriguez was abducted in November from Diema, about 350 kilometres north-west of the capital, Bamako.