One thousand French and 200 Malian troops took control of a Timbuktu airport from Islamic militants and are now fighting their way into the center of the city without any resistance so far, according to Reuters.
Malian and French forces have been fighting alongside one another in a battle against the Islamists who have been controlling northern Mali for months.
Although French President Francois Hollande refuses to speculate how long the French intervention could continue, he declared, "We are winning in Mali” at a news conference.
The U.S. also stepped its involvement in Mali, supporting the French military by aiding in refueling missions, though U.S. policy prohibits the country from allowing any direct military aid to Mali considering that the current government in power is the result of a coup. Official support to the Malian government can only be allowed if the leaders are chosen through an election.
The U.S. is supporting the French and Malian forces through intelligence and airlift support regardless. According to CNN, the U.S. Air Force has flown at least seven C-17 cargo missions into Mali, carrying mainly French troops and 168 tons of equipment.
Securing heavily populated areas and destroying the militants’ bases is clearly one of France’s main goals, and they have been achieving this by making advances in stages. This was seen in the re-taking of Gao this weekend, which, similar to Timbuktu, began with the French-led forces taking control of the airport before moving on to the main bridges and then the rest of the town.
The Islamic extremists took control of a large part of northern Mali last year following a military coup, and banned music, smoking, alcohol, and television, along with destroying historic sites such as tombs and shrines.
As the crowds celebrated in Gao, many smoked cigarettes, men wore shorts and women went unveiled for the first time since the Islamists’ had imposed strict sharia law.
"Now we can breathe freely," said Hawa Toure who donned a colorful traditional African robe formerly banned for being too revealing. "We are as free as the wind today. We thank all of our friends around the world who helped us," she said.
The French are also no longer the only foreign troops as many other countries in the region have also joined them. Between 700 and 800 troops from Benin, Nigeria, Togo, and Burkina Faso have arrived, and up to 2,000 troops from Chad are en route.
However, the fear of guerrilla warfare is still only too present, making it difficult for locals to celebrate their victories for too long.
"No-one believes the rebels will give up without resisting," a refugee from Timbuktu told the Atlantic Wire. "They may be regrouping for an attack, there is fear of a guerrilla war."
Moreover, once the rebels are defeated, the French will have to maintain a presence in Mali until a stable government is set up to ensure that the Islamist militants do not return. And as we have seen in Afghanistan, this could take much longer than the French had initially intended, and could also lead to far more casualties than what is seen now.