A Rafale jet being prepared for its mission to Mali
French fighter jets pounded an Islamist rebel stronghold deep in northern Mali on Sunday as Paris poured more troops into the capital Bamako, awaiting a West African force to dislodge al Qaeda-linked insurgents from the country's north.
The attack on Gao, the largest city in the desert region controlled by the Islamist alliance, marked a decisive intensification on the third day of French air raids, striking at the heart of the vast territory seized by rebels in April, reports Reuters.
France is determined to end Islamist domination of north Mali, which many fear could act as a base for attacks on the West and for links with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French intervention on Friday had prevented the advancing rebels from seizing Bamako. He vowed that air strikes would continue.
"The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe," he told French television.
In Gao, a dusty town on the banks of the Niger river where Islamists have imposed an extreme form of sharia law, residents said French jets pounded the airport and rebel positions. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the militants' camp in the city's north, and pick-up trucks ferried dead and wounded to hospital.
"The planes are so fast you can only hear their sound in the sky," resident Soumaila Maiga said by telephone. "We are happy, even though it is frightening. Soon we will be delivered."
Paris said four state-of-the-art Rafale jets flew from France to strike rebel training camps, logistics depots and infrastructure in Gao with the aim of weakening the rebels and preventing them from returning southward.
A spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the main Islamist factions, said the French had also bombed targets in the towns of Lere and Douentza. Residents said rebel fighters had fled from Douentza aboard pick-up trucks.
France has deployed about 550 soldiers to Mali under "Operation Serval" - named after an African wildcat - split between Bamako and the town of Mopti, 500 km (300 miles) north.
In Bamako, a Reuters cameraman saw more than 100 French troops disembark on Sunday from a military cargo plane at the international airport, on the outskirts of the capital.