A French military spokesman says French and Malian forces control access to the fabled desert town of Timbuktu.

Col. Thierry Burkhard said French paratroopers and helicopters backed ground forces to gain control Timbuktu's airport and roads into the town overnight into Monday and to allow Malian forces to move in on the stronghold of Al Qaeda linked Islamist extremists.

The advance came as French and African ground troops seized a strategic bridge and the airport in the northern city of Gao.

The Islamists seized control of the north after a military coup last March created chaos. So far the French have met little resistance though it remains to be seen whether the Malians can maintain control of the towns.