By Richard Valdmanis
SEVARE, Mali, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Refugees crowded excitedly around crackling radios at a camp in the central Mali town of Sevare on Saturday evening as French and Malian forces seized the Islamist rebel bastion of Gao.
"I want very badly to go back home," said 19-year-old Amadou Maiga, who left Gao three months ago after rebels controlling it burned his school - declaring it a violation of Islam - and recruited his classmates as cooks and child soldiers.
"Today we have real hope," he added, as other men in the camp sipped tea and buzzed about the latest headlines. Children played in the dust nearby and the smell of cooking fires filled the air. A child slept in a cardboard box.
The speed of French progress in a two-week-old campaign suggests French and Malian government troops intend to drive aggressively into the north of Mali in the next few days towards other Islamist strongholds Timbuktu and Kidal, which have been occupied by al Qaeda-linked rebels since April.
The United States and Europe back the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counter strike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.
More than 370,000 people have fled their homes due to fighting, with 150,000 leaving Mali and others displaced within, according to the European Union's human rights commission.
There are some 500 people at the camp in Sevare, a school courtyard turned into a refuge by Catholic Relief Services. Most people there come from around Gao and Timbuktu, the desert north's two biggest towns.
"We want them to free all the regions of the north so we can go back home," said Nan Toure, 45, a former street vendor from Timbuktu, the fabled trading town, who said her son had his hand cut off by Islamists who accused him of theft.
Underscoring the risks of ethnic reprisals in the push against the rebels, Mali's army has been accused by rights groups and residents of executing Tuaregs and Arabs accused of collaborating with the rebels.
Sevare is one of the towns where killings were reported. Mali's army has denied the accusations.
Reacting to the French-led offensive, one of the leaders of the alliance of Islamist groups occupying Mali's north promised resistance to what he called the "new Crusader aggression", in comments published by Al Jazeera's Arabic website.
France, which dispatched its military to Mali at the Bamako government's request, already has 2,500 soldiers on the ground in its former colony. African governments are also readying thousands to troops to join the effort.
"We are grateful to the French for helping. My children should not grow up here," said Agaichatou Cisse, 25, a street vendor from Gossi, sitting inside a white tent where she has lived for eight months with her four children. (Editing by David Lewis and Jason Webb)