FRENCH-BACKED government forces advanced into northern Mali yesterday towards the Islamist rebel stronghold of Gao, recapturing the town of Hombori, as they followed up on French air strikes against the rebels.

Two weeks after France sent troops and aircraft into its former colony to block an offensive by al Qaeda-allied Islamists, Mali's army was on the move as Islamist fighters pulled back from towns.

Malian officials, who said an offensive against Gao could take place in the next few days, said government forces entered Hombori, about 100 miles from Gao, late on Thursday.

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Malian officials said air raids hit rebel positions at Ansongo, 60 miles south of Gao. This is on the road to neighbouring Niger, where Nigerian and Chadian forces are poised to join the fight against the Islamists.

However, in a sign the rebels could offer resistance, a Malian officer and residents in the area south of Gao reported they had blown up a bridge on the main road that follows the Niger River. Two civilians were reported killed.

African heads of state meeting at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa this weekend were expected to discuss the issue and appeal for more international support.

An RAF surveillance aircraft has been deployed in support of the French military action in Mali, the Ministry of Defence said. The Sentinel, which usually carries a crew of five, has now been added to two C17 transport aircraft.