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Africa

Mali conflict tops agenda at AU talks

The African Union (AU) summit has opened in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with an agenda focusing on the conflict in Mali. Meanwhile, French troops have moved on from Gao and are headed to Islamist-held Timbuktu.

African leaders have gathered in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to discuss a faster deployment of African forces for the conflict in Mali as well as stabilizing other conflict zones in Africa.

"Much still needs to be done to resolve ongoing, renewed, and new conflict situations in a number of countries," AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in her opening speech on Sunday.

"We cannot overemphasize the need for peace and security - without peace and security no country or region can expect to achieve prosperity for all its citizens," she told the bi-annual summit.

After a security meeting on Friday, the AU resolved to strengthen the African-led force in Mali, also known as AFISMA, and gave member states one week to commit troops for the mission.

The AU said it will seek urgent "temporary" logistical support from the United Nations for AFISMA, including transportation, medicine and field hospitals, according to an AU statement.

The AU summit was also to discuss the slow progress of Sudan and South Sudan at implementing stalled oil, security and border deals.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir met Friday for face-to-face talks ahead of the summit.

Progress in Gao

The French Defense Ministry said Saturday that French and African troops have liberated Gao. Meanwhile the West African ECOWAS bloc on Saturday also pledged to bolster their military presence in Mali to 5,700 troops.

France's defense ministry said in a Saturday press release that its forces had seized an airport and a bridge over the River Niger, two key strategic points around the city of Gao.

The French statement did not say the entire city had been re-taken, though it spoke of the "re-establishment of regular powers" in the city.

Gao, the most populous city in the Malian areas controlled by a group of Islamist groups, was one of the cities subjected to French airstrikes in preparation for a ground offensive.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Saturday that troops would be heading to Timbuktu, more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) to the west of Gao, next.

France decided to intervene in the long-running Malian conflict two weeks ago. The towns of Diabaly, Konna, Douentza, Hombori, and now Gao - at least in part - have since been reclaimed by French and African troops.

Also on Saturday, the United States agreed to send tanker aircraft to refuel French jet fighters and bombers, expanding American involvement in the conflict. Previously, the US had only provided intelligence and airlift support for French infantry.

hc/pfd (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)