French and Malian forces have pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu as the two-week-long French mission against the Islamist extremists gathers momentum.
So far the French forces have met little resistance from the militants, who have ruled the north for more than nine months, though it remains unclear what battles may await them.
The Malian military blocked dozens of international journalists from trying to travel toward Timbuktu. A convoy of about 15 vehicles transporting international journalists also was blocked in Konna, some 186 miles south of Timbuktu.
The move on Timbuktu comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals under the grip of radical Islamists.
Hassane Maiga, a resident of Gao, said: "People were coming out into the streets to greet the arrival of the troops and celebrate. At night, youth from Gao went out alongside the Malian military. They scoured homes in search of the Islamists and the youth smashed the houses."
French and Malian forces were patrolling Gao searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Lt Col Kone, the Mali military spokesman.
The French special forces, which had stormed in by land and by air, had come under fire in Gao from "several terrorist elements" that were later "destroyed", the French military said in a statement on its website Saturday.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was seized by a mixture of al Qaida-linked Islamist fighters more than nine months ago along with the other northern provincial capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu.
The rebel group has close ties to Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who last week claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria. His fighters are believed to include Algerians, Egyptians, Mauritanians, Libyans, Tunisians, Pakistanis and even Afghans.
Since France began its military operation, the Islamists have retreated from three small towns in central Mali: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza. However, the Islamists still control much of the north, including Kidal.