Hundreds of French and Malian soldiers have retaken the jihadist stronghold of Bourem, a town where many radical Islamic fighters were believed to have fled, officials and witnesses said Sunday.
Militants launched two suicide attacks last week on a checkpoint leading into Gao on the road from Bourem, raising fears of a protracted insurgency in northern Mali after French and Malian forces initially dislodged them from Gao without much resistance.
About 1,000 forces from France, Mali and other African countries are now in the town of Bourem, according to a French military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't permitted to speak to press.
The joint military operation was launched Saturday afternoon as part of the ongoing effort to secure Gao, where the radical militants invaded one week ago and exchanged gunfire with Malian forces for hours.
"As the general has said, the jihads are always close," the official said.
While Gao has been restored to relative peace in recent days, officials say the ousted fighters are just on the other side of the Niger River, from which they launched last week's assault when they arrived in wooden boats.
Bourem is located only 60 miles (95 kilometers) away from Gao, where the radical Islamists ruled for nearly 10 months by imposing their strict interpretation of Islamic law known as Shariah.
They carried out a dozen amputations for alleged crimes in the Gao area, and also whipped women for going out in public without wearing veils.
Witnesses in Bourem on Sunday described a column of French armored personnel carriers lining the streets. Some 50 trucks from the French military along with about a dozen Malian vehicles could be seen.
Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March 2012 created a security vacuum that allowed secular rebel Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. In the following months, the rebels were kicked out by the Islamic extremists who imposed strict Shariah law in the north.
France launched a military operation Jan. 11 against the Islamic extremists after they started to move south into government-controlled areas and captured key towns. French and Malian forces have since retaken the major northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao, though French forces acknowledge that pockets of resistance likely remain.