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UPDATE 1-French troops deploy to last of Mali rebel strongholds

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

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DOUENTZA, Mali, Jan 30 (Reuters) - French troops have taken control of the airport in the northern Malian town of Kidal, the last rebel stronghold in the north, the French army and a local official told Reuters on Wednesday.

Kidal would be the last of northern Mali's major towns to be retaken by French forces after they reached Gao and Timbuktu earlier this week in a campaign to drive al Qaeda-linked Islamists from Mali's north, which it has said had become a safe haven for extremists.

"They arrived late last night and they deployed in four planes and some helicopters," said Haminy Belco Maiga, president of the regional assembly of Kidal.

Maiga said there were no immediate reports of resistance.

French Armed Forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard confirmed that French troops were in Kidal and said they had taken control of the airport.

"The operation is ongoing," he said, declining to give further details.

Kidal is the capital of a desert region with the same name that Islamist fighters are believed to have retreated to during nearly three weeks of French air strikes and an advance by hundreds of ground troops.

Tuareg MNLA rebels who want greater autonomy for the desert north said earlier this week that they had taken control of Kidal after Islamists abandoned the town.

The MNLA, which fought alongside the Islamists before being sidelined by them in mid-2012, was not immediately available for comment on the French deployment. (Reporting by Richard Valdmanis, John Irish and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130130/update-1-french-troops-deploy-last-mali-rebel-strongholds