In recent days, French fighter jets and helicopter gunships have conducted about a dozen sorties a day. France has about 3,150 troops now involved in the operation code-named Operation Serval in Mali, all but 1,000 of whom are currently deployed in the former French colony.
Gen. Ibrahima Dahirou, the head of Mali's armed forces, told Radio France Internationale in an interview published on its Web site Tuesday that French air strikes have made all the difference so far.
The Malian military, he said, now has the objective of retaking all northern Mali, adding: "If the (air) support is significant, it won't take more than a month for Gao and Timbuktu" to return to government control.
Dahirou also said Nigerian and Chadian forces, by passing through neighboring Niger, could reach Gao "within the month." He said he expects the rebels to retreat to the hills of Aguelhoc, in Mali's far northeast.
France said Monday about 1,000 African troops from Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Niger and Chad are now taking part in the military intervention. France hopes West African soldiers will eventually take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country.
Neighboring African countries are ultimately expected to contribute around 3,000 troops, but concerns about the mission have delayed some from sending what they have promised.
France got a new vote of confidence Tuesday as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised its intervention in Mali, saying dialogue is not now possible with the rebels. It came a day after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from Egypt's oldest Islamist movement, said he opposes France's intervention.
Associated Press writers David Rising in Berlin; Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal; Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris; and Don Melvin in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.
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