Malian youths hold down an alleged looter in Gao, which was retaken from… (Sia Kambou / AFP/Getty Images )
SEGOU, Mali — French forces seized control of the town of Kidal in northeastern Mali, the last remaining urban stronghold in the country for Islamic militants, officials said Wednesday.
The overnight offensive was the latest success in advances that have seen Al Qaeda-linked militants ousted from two major cities, Gao and Timbuktu, since Saturday, officials said.
Unlike the previous operations, Malian soldiers were not involved in Kidal, according to French news reports, after a rebel group said it would not accept the Malian army in the town.
Haminy Maiga, interim president of Kidal's regional assembly, reportedly said that French troops were patrolling and helicopters were circling.
"The French arrived at 9:30 p.m. [Tuesday] aboard four planes, which landed one after another," Maiga told the Associated Press. "Afterward they took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat."
According to Maiga, the Tuareg rebel group that announced Tuesday that it had taken control of Kidal from Islamist militias was gone from the center of town. Members of the rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, were on the outskirts of town, he said.
The Islamist militias reportedly withdrew, melting away into the vast northern reaches of Mali, an area the size of France, and some members defected.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France, Mali's former colonial ruler, would withdraw from the country swiftly after removing Islamist militias from major urban centers, the newspaper Le Parisien reported Wednesday. Control of the country will be left to Malian troops and a promised 6,000-strong regional African force, Fabius said.
French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said the operation was continuing. No date was announced for a French withdrawal.
France, which launched the operation Jan. 11, responded to a Malian government request for help after Islamist militias, who seized control of northern Mali last year, swept south, taking towns in the center of the nation. The militias' movements sparked fear that the capital, Bamako, could fall.
French officials said the military action was necessary to prevent the rise of a terrorist state in West Africa capable of launching attacks in Europe.
Last year, the MNLA launched a separatist rebellion and seized control of major towns, declaring an independent Tuareg state on April 6. But three Islamist militias — Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa — quickly outflanked the MNLA and took power. The Tuareg, nomadic herders who roam the desert regions in northern Mali, Algeria and Niger, have been fighting the Malian government for independence on and off since the1990s.
In that time there have been countless divisions and rivalries among Tuareg leaders. After its initial independence declaration last year, the MNLA backed down on its bid for an independent state.