Mali (CNN) — French-led troops in Mali have seized control of the airport in Timbuktu from Islamist militants and are fighting their way into the city center, a spokesman for the Malian military said Monday.
Malian and French forces have together been battling the Islamists to loosen their grip on the country's north, which the militants have controlled for months.
The United States has also stepped up its involvement in the conflict by conducting aerial refueling missions on top of the intelligence and airlift support it was already providing.
Malian and French soldiers scored a key victory last week, taking control of Gao, a city east of Timbuktu that for months had been a militant stronghold. And the flushing the Islamists out of Timbuktu, Mali's historic cultural center, would be a big symbolic gain.
The Islamists were reported to be fleeing Timbuktu to the city of Kidal, more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) to the northeast.
The quickening advance of the government forces has brought them to the heart of the territory held by the militants.
Covering the fighting up close is almost impossible for journalists, who are prevented from gaining access to the front line. Journalists are only allowed to enter after a town after it has been freed and its security guaranteed by French and Malian troops.
French forces are involved in the fight in Mali, a former French colony that retains close ties with Paris, in an effort to prevent the Islamists from turning the once-peaceful democracy into a haven for international terrorists.
France has 2,150 soldiers on Malian soil, with 1,000 more troops supporting the operation from elsewhere.
The Islamic extremists carved out a large haven in northern Mali last year, taking advantage of a chaotic situation after a military coup by the separatist party MNLA. The militants banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also destroyed historic tombs and shrines.
Refugees have told harrowing stories of life under the Islamist militants. But human rights groups have also raised concerns over reports that Malian soldiers are themselves carrying out extrajudicial killings and abuses as they counterstrike.
The restrictions on journalists makes it harder for them to gauge the realities on the ground.
The United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, has called for an increase in international aid for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the fighting in the country.
More than 150,000 refugees have fled Mali into neighboring countries, and another 230,000 are displaced inside Mali, the agency said.
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