French troops were at the gates of the last major city in northern Mali still outside their control early yesterday after their forces landed at the airport in Kidal, local sources said.
“We confirm that French aircraft are on the Kidal landing strip and that protection helicopters are in the sky,” a regional security source said, while a senior Tuareg figure in Kidal also confirmed the report.
A spokesman for the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently announced it had taken control of Kidal, said the French had landed there.
“Our leader is currently talking with them,” he said.
Kidal lies 1,500km northeast of the capital, Bamako, and until recently was controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
However, on Thursday last week, the newly formed IMA announced it had split from Ansar Dine, that it rejected “extremism and terrorism,” and wanted to find a peaceful solution to Mali’s crisis.
Kidal is the third of the major cities in northern Mali which, along with Gao and Timbuktu, were for 10 months were under the control of the Islamists.
They profited from the chaos following a military coup in March last year to seize the north and imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law there. Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases they were executed.
France swept to Mali’s aid on Jan. 11 as the Islamists advanced south toward Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could end up a haven for extremists.
With the recapture of Timbuktu by French-led forces on Monday, Kidal became the last major northern city still outside their control.
In Timbuktu on Tuesday, a day after the troops drove in to an ecstatic welcome, hundreds of people looted shops they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians accused of backing the Islamists.
At a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, African leaders and international officials pledged more than US$455 million for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.
A lack of cash and equipment has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA), which is expected to take over from the French army.
So far, just 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighboring Niger, many of them from Chad, whose contingent is independent from the AFISMA force. The bulk of the fighting has been borne by about 2,900 French troops.
AFISMA spokesman Colonel Yao Adjoumani of Ivory Coast said that not counting the Chadians, so far they had 1,428 soldiers on the ground — from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
In Washington, the Pentagon said US planes would help fly African troops into the region.
The US has already started supplying air refueling facilities for French aircraft, and has flown in supplies and equipment for the mission.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced additional aid of 47 million euros (US$63 million) for African forces and Malian troops in Addis Ababa, in the form of logistical support and material.
Britain said it was ready to boost the number of military personnel helping the operation to more than 300, adding about 240 to more than 90 military personnel already in the region supporting the mission.
Experts were still trying to assess exactly how many of Timbuktu’s priceless ancient manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages had been destroyed when fleeing Islamists set fire to the building housing them.