French forces in Mali launched air assault operations over the weekend in a successful effort to rapidly take control of positions along the Niger River. Before dawn on Jan. 26, French special operations forces and paratroopers from the 1st Parachute Chasseurs Regiment were inserted by parachute to take control of the airfield in Gao as well as the 300-meter-long (980-foot-long) bridge across the Niger River. The French forces encountered some resistance but reportedly overcame it before securing the bridge and airfield. The French forces, together with Malian troops, are now securing the city of Gao. A skirmish took place in the northern outskirts of the city Jan. 28, but no major resistance has yet been met. France is also preparing to airlift a contingent of Chadian and Nigerien forces into Gao, since the sabotage of a bridge between Niger and Gao prevented their entry. Also on Jan. 28, ground elements led by a company of the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment, along with Malian forces, moved out of Diabaly for reconnaissance operations in the direction of Timbuktu. The force encountered no resistance on its way to seizing the airfield in Timbuktu. Meanwhile, a heavily reinforced company of the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment was inserted by parachute north of Timbuktu and took control of the main access roads into the city. These forces have moved on to take control of Timbuktu, which they are now consolidating, but the jihadist militants are already reported to have fled. The air assaults come as the jihadist forces are breaking under the pressure of French combat operations. Many militants have reportedly fled to the mountains north of Kidal along the Algerian border, and French and Malian forces are moving quickly to take control of the abandoned areas and lightly defended cities. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg faction opposed to the jihadists, has claimed it is now in control of the town of Kidal in the north, which could further disrupt the jihadist elements during their retreat or attempts to oppose the French and African intervention forces. With Ansar Dine falling apart and the jihadists heavily outmaneuvered on the battlefield, the operations in Mali are already starting to move into the next phase, during which African forces will be deployed into northern Mali to conduct stability operations.