SEVARE/ JOHANNESBURG: France's foreign minister said Wednesday that French forces would depart Mali ''quickly'' following their success in taking control of the airport in Kidal, a key position in the last remaining urban stronghold of extremists in northern Mali.
French and Malian troops have recaptured two of the other provincial capitals, Timbuktu and Gao, in recent days. Once France, with its thousands of troops, fighter planes and helicopters, leaves, Mali's weak army and soldiers from neighboring countries might be hard-pressed to retain control of northern Mali's cities if the extremists attempt a comeback from their desert hideouts.
''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.''
Haminy Maiga, the interim president of the Kidal regional assembly, said French forces met no resistance when they arrived late Tuesday. ''The French arrived at 9:30 p.m. aboard four planes, which landed one after another. Afterwards they took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat,'' said Maiga, who had been in touch with people in the town by satellite phone as all the normal phone networks were down.
''The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead,'' he added.
In Paris, French army Colonel Thierry Burkhard confirmed that the airport was taken overnight and described the operation in Kidal itself as ''ongoing.''
On Tuesday, a secular Tuareg rebel group had asserted that they were in control of Kidal and other small towns in northern Mali. Maiga said those fighters had left Kidal and were at the entry posts on the roads from Gao and Tessalit.
France also said on Wednesday that Mali's interim government in Bamako must begin immediate talks with the country's northern population including armed groups that recognise the territorial integrity of the West African state.
“The Malian authorities must begin without delay talks with the legitimate representatives of the northern population and non-terrorist armed groups that recognise Mali's integrity,” French Foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.
“Only a north-south dialogue will enable the return of Malian state in the north of the country,” Lalliot added.
Mali President Dioncounda Traore said his government aimed to organise credible elections for July 31 in response to demands from major Western backers of the anti-rebel action.
France, the former colonial ruler, began sending in troops, helicopters and warplanes on January 11 to turn the tide after armed religious extremists began encroaching on the south, toward the capital.
French and Malian troops seized Gao during the weekend and took Timbuktu on Monday. The militants gave up both cities and retreated into the surrounding desert.
In Gao's main market, women returned to work on Wednesday without the black veils required by the militants. They wore vibrant patterned fabrics and sported makeup.
While most crowds in the freed cities have been joyful, months of resentment toward the militants bubbled into violence in Gao.
Video footage filmed by an amateur cameraman and obtained by The Associated Press shows a mob attacking the symbol of the oppressive regime, the police headquarters.
Some celebrate cheering ''I am Malian,'' while others armed with sticks and machetes attack suspected members of the militant rebel regime.
The graphic images shot Saturday show the mob as they mutilate the corpses of two young suspected jihadists lying dead in the street.
Gao's mayor and governor met Wednesday with community elders in an attempt to bring a halt to the vigilante attacks.
There are 3,500 French troops involved in the operation and 2,900 Africans, according to the latest figures from the French Defense Ministry.
Mali's military was severely affected by a military coup last year coup and has a reputation for disorganisation and bad discipline. Malian soldiers have been accused of fatally shooting civilians suspected of links to the religious extremists. The military has promised to investigate the allegations.
Historical manuscripts recovered
Meanwhile, it was discovered that most of the priceless ancient books and manuscripts housed in a Timbuktu centre were smuggled away before extremists overran the city last year, an associate curator told AFP Wednesday.
“A vast majority was saved... more than 90 percent,” said Shamil Jeppie, Tombouctou Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town.
They were moved during the early months of the insurgency in northern Mali, which has seen armed militant groups destroy ancient shrines and tombs in Timbuktu which they consider violate Islamic law.
Residents charged that the extremisrs had burnt priceless ancient books and manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research as they fled a French-led offensive last week.
Jeppie said Wednesday that more than 20,000 manuscripts had been moved out of the South African-sponsored centre by May last year and hidden away in the capital Bamako and elsewhere in Timbuktu.
It was not immediately clear how many manuscripts there are in the entire town.
“Archivists and librarians associated with the Ahmed Baba library in fact over the months of the occupation worked to take the manuscripts out, to conserve them and hide them in Bamako,” Jeppie said.
It is not exactly clear where in Bamako the documents are being kept, but Jeppie said he suspects they could be at the University of Bamako where the centre has been given temporary shelter.
He cited the director of the centre as saying 25,090 items of handwritten manuscripts – some dating back to the 14th century – were safely taken out of the library.
The only fear is that some of the delicate manuscripts could have been damaged during the move from Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.