French troops in Mali take Kidal, last Islamist holdout

French troops in Timbuktu. 28 Jan 2013 French forces earlier took the historic Malian city of Timbuktu

French forces have secured the northern Malian town of Kidal, the last main stronghold of Islamist rebels in the region, military officials say.

Militant Islamist fighters had already left the town, near the Algerian border, and are believed to be hiding in the surrounding mountains.

The capture of Kidal came days after French and Malian forces retook the provincial capitals Gao and Timbuktu.

Kidal official Haminy Maiga said the French troops had met no resistance.

"The French arrived aboard four planes," said, Mr Maiga, who heads the regional assembly.

"They took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat. The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead."

Earlier, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a sandstorm had delayed the troops from leaving the airport and entering the town.

Islamist militants extended their control of the vast north of Mali in April 2012, taking advantage of a military coup.

France - the former colonial power in Mali - launched a military operation this month after the militants appeared to be threatening the south.

The BBC's Thomas Fessy in Timbuktu says the capture of Kidal marks the end of the first phase of the military operation to oust militants from northern Mali.

Mali crisis timeline

  • October 2011: Ethnic Tuaregs launch new rebellion after returning with weapons from Libya, where they had fought for Gaddafi
  • March 2012: Military officers depose President Amadou Toumani Toure over handling of rebellion
  • April 2012: Tuareg and Islamist fighters seize control of northern Mali, declare independence
  • June 2012: Islamist groups capture Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao from Tuaregs, start to destroy Muslim shrines that offend their puritan views
  • September 2012: Islamist rebels seize town of Douentza, crossing into central Mali and threatening government-held south
  • January 2013: Islamist fighters capture central town of Konna, raising fears they could march on capital. President Dioncounda Traore asks France for help. French intervention begins.

France is now expecting the deployment of thousands of African forces to support the second phase - driving the al-Qaeda-linked fighters from their desert hideouts.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday that France intended to leave Mali "quickly", and it was up to African countries to take over.

Several hundred soldiers from West African countries - including Niger and Chad - are already in Mali.

Our correspondent says French forces who entered Kidal found members of the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) there.

The Tuareg rebels launched the insurgency last year before breaking away from the militants.

Their presence in Kidal explains why government troops have not yet been sent to the town, our correspondent adds.

The MNLA says it will support the French but will not allow the return of the Malian army, which it accused of "crimes against the civilian population".

Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of targeting ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilians.

An MNLA spokesman told the BBC its fighters had entered Kidal on Saturday and found no Islamist militants there.

Kidal was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which has strong ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, recently said that it was in control of Kidal.

The IMA has also said it rejects "extremism and terrorism" and wants a peaceful solution.

Enigmatic leader

Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly waits for the Burkinabe foreign minister at Kidal airport on 7 August 2012

The radical Islamist group Ansar Dine was founded by Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly

Some reports say Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly and Abou Zeid of AQIM have now moved to the mountainous region north of Kidal.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday are expected to reaffirm support for the French intervention in Mali and discuss practical details of an EU military training mission which is due to begin there next month.

On Tuesday, international donors meeting in Ethiopia pledged $455.53m (£289m) for the African Union-backed force (Afisma) and for other projects.

African leaders say the overall budget could be around $950m.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has also said credible elections in Mali would be vital to achieving peace in the country.

Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore said on Tuesday he wanted to hold "transparent and credible" elections by 31 July.

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