BAMAKO, Jan. 28 (Xinhua) -- The Malian army exchanged fire with rebels in the northern town of Gao, which was recaptured with the support of French troops last week, witnesses told Xinhua on Sunday night.
"Currently (21:20 GMT), there's an exchange of fire between the Malian army which is being supported by its French and African allies, and the Islamists on the northern side of our town," a resident of Gao said.
Another local source who spoke on the phone confirmed the shootout. "About 10 minutes ago, the situation calmed down. The Islamists fled to the town of Siena, a zone which is situated about 15 km to the north of the town. The gunshots have ceased."
He said many believe that the rebels could have fled to the nearby towns of Bourem and Gourma.
With Malian and French forces regaining control of Gao on Friday night, the mobile telephone network was restored on Sunday at 17:00 GMT. The town had been practically cut off from the rest of the world after falling into the hands of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in May 2012.
Meanwhile, the French military said it continued airstrikes over the weekend on the rebel targets around Gao and Timbuktu, the heritage town in northern Mali.
The French Defense Ministry announced operations "deep into the enemy territory," with the reinforcement of forces in Gao, including African units from Niger and Chad.
Mayor of Gao Sadou Diallo, who was forced to flee in rebel advances in March 2012, has returned to the town, the ministry said in a statement released on Sunday.
In the battle over the control of the Gao airport and the bridge on the River Niger, "several terrorist groups were destroyed or chased away towards the north," the statement added.
The French and Mali forces are also advancing towards Timbuktu, just 48 hours after engaging in an offensive with rebels in the town of Lere.
In past 36 hours, 15 large carriers from the capital Bamako delivered materials and vehicles to reinforce troops engaged in "Operation Serval."
At the moment, the number of French forces deployed to the ground has increased to 2,900 and African troops have risen to 2, 700, according to military sources.