NAIROBI, Kenya — French troops on Wednesday reclaimed the airport in Kidal, in northern Mali, as France and Malian forces advanced in battle against Islamist extremists in the last major town under rebel control.
"The French arrived (Tuesday) at 9:30 p.m. aboard four planes, which landed one after another,” Haminy Maiga, the interim president of the Kidal regional assembly, told The Associated Press Wednesday. “Afterwards 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," he added.
Over the past year, extremists had taken over in northern Mali, banning music, smoking, drinking, dancing and television and beating, torturing or killing residents who resisted their rule.
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Complicating the picture in Kidal, is the presence of Tuareg fighters from the separatist MNLA whose rebellion last year was hijacked by Islamist groups, says GlobalPost's Senior Correspondent in Africa Tristan McConnell. Many Malians blame them for the strife that followed. The MNLA resurfaced in the town a few days ago and claims control over it.
The push into Kidal, following the recapture of Gao and Timbuktu in recent days, marks the end of what reports are calling the second phase in the French-led fight back against extremists that had controlled northern Mali for 10 months.
The first phase, in early January, was the deployment of the French military to halt a sudden and unexpected southward advance by Islamist forces who attacked the small towns of Konna and Diabaly.
In the second phase, French air force and ground troops, backed by the Malian army, have retaken urban centers in the north.
The third phase — defeating the Islamist groups in the vast Sahara's desert and mountains — will be the most difficult. France has made clear its desire not to be too heavily involved, preferring to hand the task over to a 7,900 strong African force which is currently taking shape.
"Now it's up to African countries to take over," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Le Parisien newspaper. "We decided to put the means — in men and supplies — to make the mission succeed and hit hard. But the French aspect was never expected to be maintained. We will leave quickly."
Tristan McConnell contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @t_mcconnell.