It is the last major town in the sweep to flush out Islamist militants
Control of the airport comes days after troops seized Timbuktu and Gao cities
"We are winning in Mali," French President Francois Hollande says
The French-led offensive started January 10
French President Francois Hollande will travel to Mali on Saturday, where his nation’s troops have been battling Islamist militants for three weeks alongside African forces.
If the forces secure the town, it will be the last major city in their sweep north to flush out Islamist militants in Mali, France’s former colony.
France sent troops at Mali’s request after Islamists seized the strategic town of Konna on January 10. The town is now back in Malian control.
French-led troops in Mali now control the ancient city of Timbuktu, the city of Gao and the swath in between that was an Islamist stronghold for almost a year, the French Defense Ministry said.
Life trickled back to normal in Timbuktu, the ancient desert city and home to world-famous cultural sites.
“We are winning in Mali,” French President Francois Hollande said at a news conference Monday, but he added that militants still control parts of the north.
The country has 2,150 soldiers on Malian soil, with 1,000 more troops supporting the operation from elsewhere.
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.
Britain said Tuesday it will provide military support but won’t take part in combat. The United Kingdom is prepared to deploy up to 40 troops to a European Union military training mission in Mali, and up to 200 troops as trainers in English-speaking West African countries, British Defence Minister Philip Hammond told lawmakers in the House of Commons.
Up to 40 of those troops will be deployed to a European Union military training mission in Mali and the rest in English-speaking West African countries.
The nations are teaming up to prevent the Islamists from turning the once peaceful democracy into a haven for international terrorists.
In addition, the European Union said Tuesday it will contribute $67 million to support the African-led International Support Mission to Mali.
Among the donors, Japan pledged $120 million, the United States $96 million pending congressional approval and the European Union just over $67 million.
Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana pledged $3 million each, and China and India pledged $1 million each.
Islamic extremists carved out a large portion of the north last year, taking advantage of a chaotic situation after a military coup.
They banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and destroyed historic tombs and shrines in the region.
More than 380,000 people have fled northern Mali in the last year: 230,000 are internally displaced, and more than 150,000 refugees are in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, the United Nations says.
But with the French-led offensive sending the militants on the run, residents are once again roaming the streets without fear.
Villagers chanted “Mali! Mali!” as a column of military vehicles drove through Gao over the weekend.
CNN’s Brian Walker contributed to this report.