Mali crisis: Troops 'take northern town of Hombori'

French soldiers are waiting the arrival of the French Defence Minister before their departure to Mali on January 25 More French and international troops are due to join the campaign in Mali

Malian and French troops have retaken the town of Hombori, officials say, as they continue their campaign to regain control of northern Mali from rebels.

Hombori lies about 160km (100 miles) from the Islamist stronghold of Gao.

Earlier, French warplanes reportedly bombed rebel positions, fuel stores and ammunition dumps near Gao.

But there were also reports that rebels had blown up a bridge linking the east of the country with Niger, from where African troops plan to open a front.

The bridge is situated in the town of Tassiga, which lies on the quickest route from Niger to Gao, and spans a canyon.

However, Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanate, a former deputy in Mali's parliament, said the bridge was not the only way to cross the canyon.

At the scene

We drove through the town of Sevare, a place I'd only seen on maps and which I had described in my reports as "strategically important".

At first, I thought guiltily that I had been exaggerating. Severe looked like any other African town - markets, metalworkers on the roadside, mobile phone shops everywhere.

Then the sound of a military helicopter shattered the normality.

It flew overhead and crossed the road in front of me flying so low it almost skimmed the treetops.

"You can make a detour of three to six miles (5-10km) and find another way to continue on the Niger-Gao road," he said, quoted by AP news agency.

Forces from Niger and Chad had been expected to use the road to join the advance against the rebels.

Several African countries have pledged military aid to help the Malian government win back control of the north.

On Friday the African Union asked the UN Security Council to authorise immediate logistical help to allow the 6,000-strong force to deploy quickly.

It also recommended civilian observers to monitor the human rights situation in the areas which have come back under the control of the Malian government. Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of committing serious abuses.

International build-up

Islamists seized a vast area of northern Mali last year and have imposed strict Sharia, or Islamic law, on its inhabitants. France intervened militarily on 11 January to stop them advancing further south.

The UN refugee agency says more than 7,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring countries since 10 January to escape the fighting.

As fighting continued on Friday, French TV carried grainy images of air strikes which the military said had been carried out near the city of Gao.

The first Burkinabe military patrol, as members of the African forces in Mali, arrives in Merkala Egypt's president has unveiled a proposal for a peaceful resolution to the Mali conflict

Malian and Nigerien security sources also reported the strikes, saying two Islamist bases with fuel stocks and weapon dumps near Gao had been destroyed.

French and Malian troops also staged joint patrols for the first time, in the town of Douentza west of Gao, the AFP news agency said, quoting Malian sources.

The BBC's Mark Doyle in Mali says a big international troop build-up is continuing ahead of a probable French-led air and ground offensive on Gao and other desert cities.

There are currently about 2,000 French troops in Mali.

An armed column of Chadian soldiers is making its way to Mali overland and more than 1,000 Nigerian soldiers are expected there too.

The UK defence ministry said on Friday it was deploying its Sentinel R1 spy plane to support French troops in Mali.

The hi-tech plane - which has radar equipment that can scan thousands of square miles in minutes - flew missions over Libya in 2011 as rebels fought to oust Col Gaddafi.

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi unveiled a proposal for a peaceful resolution to the Mali conflict.

The five-point plan includes political negotiations, economic and development initiatives and co-ordinated relief efforts. Mr Morsi has spoken against military intervention in Mali.

Earlier, the US military commander in Africa said the Pentagon had made mistakes when training Malian troops in recent years.

Gen Carter Ham of United States Africa Command (Africom) said its forces had failed to teach "values, ethics and a military ethos".

He was speaking after reports of abuses by Mali government troops taking part in the counter-offensive.

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