U.S. transports French troops and equipment to Mali

U.S. Africa Command says American planes have begun transporting French troops and equipment in support of the country's mission in Mali.

Forces gain control of strategic town of Douentza

A French soldier stands guard in Diabaly, Mali on Monday. French and Malian soldiers rolled into the central towns of Diabaly and Douentza on Monday, as the U.S. started transporting French troops and equipment to Mali. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

American planes transported French troops and equipment to Mali, a U.S. military spokesman said Tuesday, as Malian and French forces pushed into the Islamist-held north.

Tom Saunders, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany said Tuesday that the U.S. Air Force C-17 transport began flights on Monday from the French base in Istres, France, to Bamako.

Malian soldiers, seen on their way to Markala, Mali on Jan. 18, 2013, have regained control of the town of Douentza which had been under Islamist rule since September. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

He said two flights arrived in Bamako on Monday and a third arrived Tuesday morning.

"The missions will operate over the next several days," he said, but would not give any details on how many more flights were envisioned, citing operational security.

Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said selective air strikes were continuing against suspected rebel targets. He said the radical Islamist fighters have been trying to disperse in light of the French bombardments, and as such had become "less dangerous" than before.

In recent days, French fighter jets and helicopter gunships have conducted about a dozen sorties per day. France has about 3,150 troops now involved in the operation code-named Operation Serval in Mali, all but 1,000 of whom are currently deployed in the former French colony.

Malian, French forces gain control of key town

Meanwhile, Malian forces on Tuesday controlled the strategic town that was under extreme Islamist rule for four months, as the French-led military intervention pushed northward in its second week.

Douentza had been the outer edge of Islamist rebel control until the militants surged southward earlier this month. While far from the capital, Douentza is only 190 kilometres northeast from Mopti, which marks the line-of-control held by the Malian military.

On Monday, French and Malian troops arrived in Douentza to find that the Islamists already had retreated from the town, local adviser Sali Maiga told The Associated Press.

"The Malian military and the French army spent their first night and the people are very happy," Maiga said Tuesday.

A curfew went into effect at 8 p.m., and there was no gunfire or other incidents reported overnight, he said.

Back in September, a convoy of pickup trucks carrying bearded men had entered Douentza, and in the months that followed the Islamist extremists forced women to wear veils and enlisted children as young as 12 as soldiers in training.

The announcement that Douentza was again in government hands came Monday, the same day French and Malian forces again patrolled the streets of Diabaly after nearly a week of Islamist rule.

1,000 African troops helping military intervention

The presence of Malian soldiers in the two towns marks tangible accomplishments for the French-led mission, which began on Jan. 11 after the rebels pushed south and seized the central Malian town of Konna.

In Douentza, Mali, young fighters, including 13-year-old Abdullahi, right, and 14-year-old Hamadi, second right, display their Quranic studies notes for a journalist as their Islamist commanders look on, on Sept. 27, 2012. (Baba Ahmed/Associated Press)

That seizure had marked the furthest south the Islamists had ventured since taking control of northern Mali's main cities following a March 2012 coup in Bamako, the capital in Mali's south.

France said Monday there are now about 1,000 African troops in Mali to take part in the military intervention. Burkhard said the soldiers come from Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Niger and Chad.

Mali has received logistical support from Western allies and intelligence from the United States but the French ultimately hope that West African soldiers will take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country.

Neighbouring African countries are ultimately expected to contribute around 3,000 troops but concerns about the mission have delayed some from sending their promised troops.