BAMAKO  - French-led troops Saturday seized the airport and a key bridge serving the fighters’ stronghold of Gao in a stunning boost to a 16-day-old offensive on Al Qaeda-linked rebels holding Mali’s vast desert north.

In a parallel pincer-like movement, battle-hardened troops from Chad and soldiers from Niger moved towards the Malian border from the Niger town of Ouallam, which lies about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south-east of Gao. France on Saturday confirmed the capture of the airport and the Wanbary bridge at Gao but said fighting was continuing in the town itself. The airport is located about six kilometres east of Gao, while the bridge lies at the southern entrance to the town, held by the Al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). “French planes have landed in Gao. We want to quickly take over control of the eight quarters of the town and avoid damage,” a Malian security official said.

The French military in Paris confirmed the overnight seizure of the airport and bridge and said there were “sporadic” attacks on its forces. There was no fighting “strictly speaking” but the fighters were firing at French positions “after taking shelter in urban areas,” a spokesman for the chief of staff told AFP.

French defence ministry sources also said a report in French newspaper Le Monde that hundreds of rebels had died since the French military intervention in Mali were “plausible.”

Sources said earlier that the militants had left Gao in the wake of the French-led campaign on January 11 to stop a triad of Al Qaeda-linked groups from pushing southward from their northern bastions towards Bamako. An alliance of Tuareg rebels who wanted to declare an independent homeland in the north and hardline groups seized the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in April last year. The groups include MUJAO, Ansar Dine, a homegrown group, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, of which MUJAO is an offshoot. The militants then sidelined the Tuaregs to implement their own agenda. Their harsh interpretation of sharia has seen transgressors flogged, stoned and executed, and they have forbidden music and television and forced women to wear veils.

The MUJAO said it was ready for negotiations to release Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, a French national of Portuguese origin who was kidnapped in western Mali.

“The MUJAO is ready to negotiate the release of Gilberto,” said spokesman Walid Abu Sarhaoui. “We can come to an understanding on the issue of war,” he added, without elaborating.

West African defence chiefs meanwhile met to review the slow deployment of regional forces to bolster the French-led offensive against fighters at an emergency meeting in Ivory Coast’s main city Abidjan.

Although the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc has pledged more than 4,500 soldiers, their deployment has been delayed by financing and logistical problems.

Chad, which neighbours Mali and is not an ECOWAS member, has promised a total of 2,000 additional troops. They were sent to Niger to join 500 local troops to open a new front against the rebels.

The Abidjan talks will determine exactly how many troops each country in the 15-nation bloc is willing to pledge but “particularly commit to deploying troops as quickly as possible,” said Ivory Coast Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi.

The African Union said it would urge members to bolster the African force and seek support from the United Nations for the operation in the form of transport, medicine and field hospitals.

While a fraction of the African forces have arrived in Bamako and are slowly deploying elsewhere, the French and Malian forces have done all the fighting so far.

France has already deployed 2,300 troops to Mali and defence officials acknowledge the force will exceed the initially set upper limit of 2,500.

The French and Malian forces captured Hombori, another northern town, in their advance on Gao. To the centre, they have recaptured the town of Diabaly and are pushing northeast with the aim of taking control of Timbuktu.