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France said Thursday its warplanes had hit Islamist command posts near the last militant stronghold in northern Mali, as the UN mulled a peacekeeping force to take over the fast-moving French-led operation.
Ground troops gathered at the gates of Kidal, a desert outpost that is the last rebel stronghold yet to be fully recaptured, as France said its fighter jets had blasted command centres, training camps and depots run by Islamist extremists in the mountains north of the town.
Many rebels are believed to have melted away into the desert hills around Kidal since France launched air strikes on January 11 in a surprise assault to block an advance towards Bamako by Al-Qaeda linked extremists who have occupied the north for 10 months.
The latest air strikes were carried out over the past few days in the Aguelhok region near the border with Algeria, a French military spokesman told journalists.
To back up the ground troops already in place, a column of 1,400 Chadian soldiers was heading by road towards Kidal from the Niger border, he added.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France's air attacks had hit the rebels hard.
"The jihadists suffered heavy losses," Le Drian said. "There were numerous strikes which hit their equipment and men.
"The French intervention has succeeded," he added, saying rebel fighters were "returning home, or trying to cross the borders, which will be more and more difficult... or they are making a tactical retreat".
But, in a sign the insurgents remain a threat despite being routed by the three-week French-led offensive, at least two Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in central territory recaptured last week from the rebels.
Paris has urged dialogue between "non-armed terrorist groups" and Mali's interim government for a long-term solution to the woes of the country, which straddles the Sahara desert and the region to the south known as the Sahel.
Tuareg desert nomads in the north have long felt marginalised by Bamako, and last January rebels launched the latest in a string of insurgencies, kickstarting Mali's rapid implosion.
Their National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) stunned the weak Malian army, whose humiliated soldiers staged a coup in March.
But the juggernaut continued, and the Tuareg -- who had allied with the Islamist groups -- rapidly overrran the vast desert north.
They were soon thrust aside by the extremists, who imposed a brutal form of Islamic law on areas under their control, where offenders were punished by whippings, amputations and executions.
Interim president Dioncounda Traore told French radio RFI he was willing to talk to the secular Tuaregs from the MNLA, but would not meet any of the Islamist groups.
His comments came after former members of rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) on Monday claimed to have broken away and formed the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), saying it rejected "extremism and terrorism".
MIA remains in control of Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of Bamako, and a spokesman said Wednesday its members were speaking to French forces there.
The group also appealed to the international community to prevent the deployment of Malian and West African troops in the Kidal region before a political solution is reached.
But Traore dismissed the apparent MIA olive branch, saying: "Because fear has now changed sides, they are looking for a way out."
-- EU voices alarm over abuses --
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, is keen to hand over its military operation to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed.
UN officials said planning was at an advanced stage to gather those forces together under the umbrella of a formal UN peacekeeping operation.
France now has 3,500 troops on the ground and with support from the Mali army, has retaken several rebel strongholds, including the large regional town of Gao and the fabled desert trading post of Timbuktu, with no resistance.
French soldiers remained at Kidal's airport Thursday, after being blocked by a sandstorm. The defence ministry said they would secure the town when the weather cleared.
With the Islamists on the run, rights groups have voiced fears of widespread abuses and reprisals against Tuaregs and Arabs accused of supporting them, after reports of killings by Malian government forces.
The EU said it was "alarmed" by the reports and urged the Malian government to investigate.