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French forces have taken control of the last bastion of the Islamist rebels by routing the insurgents in Mali's north-east town of Kidal, days after eliminating the rebels from the provincial capitals Gao and Timbuktu, according to military officials.
Officials also confirmed that the French takeover was a peaceful one because the Islamist militants had already fled the town for the surrounding mountains near the Algerian border. Kidal official Haminy Maiga, one of the key members of the regional assembly, told Reuters:
"The French arrived aboard four planes and a couple of helicopters late last night. They entered (the town of Kidal) from the airport, took control of it and then entered the town. There was no combat (with the Islamist militants) either."
He said that the French troops had taken complete control of the town and two helicopters were patrolling overhead.
The only hiccup in the operation codenamed Serval (wildcat) was a delay in getting out of the airport, as the French troops had to wait for a sandstorm to subside.
The latest siege of the last Islamist stronghold now pits French forces against the pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels. The Tuaregs, championed by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), have been waging a war against the Bamako government since early last year to achieve their decades-long campaign for independence in northern Mali.
It was at this juncture that the northern Mali secessionist movement was joined and hijacked by Islamist militants seeking to build a jihadi base aimed at the west. The Islamist militants had helped the Tuaregs oust the central government and capture vast swathes of northern Mali last March.
Over the following three months, the better financed, war-hardened Islamist militants, comprising al Qaida's north African wing AQIM and Ansar Dine, pushed the MNLA rebels to the fringes and took complete control of the seized territory.
The French deployed around 3,500 ground troops alongside warplanes, helicopters and armoured vehicles in Mali to fight against the Islamist militants.
Over to Africans
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that their aim was to swiftly take control of the sieged towns and move out of Mali "quickly".
"Liberating Gao and Timbuktu very quickly was part of our plan. Now it's up to the African countries to take over," Fabius told Le Parisien daily.
The capture of Kidal marks the end of the first phase of the French military operation.
The second phase will entail the deployment of African troops, in collaboration with French forces, to eliminate the al-Qaida-allied fighters from their desert hideouts. The challenge remaining now is how quickly the African forces can be assembled to oust rogue Islamist elements in Mali.
Ethiopia has already pledged £289m for the African Union-sponsored force (Afisma), although African leaders estimate that the deployment of this force will require around £595m.
Some reports suggest that Ansar Dine and AQIM leaders have sought refuge in the mountainous region outside Kidal.
The Tuaregs, on the other hand, who have been fighting for autonomy for decades, have welcomed French intervention in clearing out Islamist militants but oppose Malian troops' entry to northern Mali.