Mali conflict: France says its troops now in Kidal By AFP | Wednesday, January 30  2013 at  14:11

Kidal airport in August 2012, when it was under the control of Ansar Dine. PHOTO | AFP 

French troops have entered Kidal, the last major town in their lightning drive to rout Islamist fighters from northern Mali, military officials said Wednesday.

The arrival in Kidal comes days after the French-led capture of Gao and Timbuktu in a three-week offensive that Paris now hopes to wind down and hand over to African troops.

"French elements were deployed overnight in Kidal," French army spokesman Thierry Burkhard said in Paris.

Several sources reported earlier that French troops had landed at the airport of Kidal.

"We confirm that French aircraft are on the Kidal landing strip and that protection helicopters are in the sky," said a regional security source.

A senior Tuareg figure in Kidal and a spokesman for the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad, which recently announced it had taken control of Kidal, also said the French had landed at the airport.

"Our leader is currently talking with them," he added.

Kidal lies 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako and until recently was controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).

Whippings and amputations

Last Thursday however, the newly formed group announced it had split from Ansar Dine, that it rejected "extremism and terrorism" and wanted to find a peaceful solution to Mali's crisis.

Ansar Dine and two other Islamist groups took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in Bamako last March to seize the north, imposing their harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law. Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases were executed.

With the recapture of Timbuktu by French-led forces on Monday, Kidal became the last major northern city still outside their control.

Several reports say the main Islamist chiefs, Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine and the Algerian Abou Zeid of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have retreated to the mountains in the Kidal region, which borders Algeria and Niger.

The UN refugee agency reported that food, clean water and fuel were scarce in both Kidal and Tessalit, further north.

"Hundreds of people are reported to have fled Kidal in recent days to villages further north, even closer to the Algerian border," said the UNHCR.

"Others have crossed into Algeria, despite the border being officially closed."