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 Islamist 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 Islamists might be hard-pressed to retain control of northern Mali's cities if the Islamists 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 Mr. 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 Col. 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, the former colonial ruler, began sending in troops, helicopters and warplanes on Jan. 11 to turn the tide after the rebels began encroaching on the south, toward the capital. French and Malian troops seized Gao during the weekend and took Timbuktu on Monday. The religious 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 Islamists. They wore vibrant patterned fabrics and sported makeup.
While most crowds in the freed cities have been joyful, months of resentment toward the rebels 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 Islamic police headquarters.
Some celebrate cheering "I am Malian," while others armed with sticks and machetes attack suspected members of the Islamist 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 coup last year coup and has a reputation for disorganization and bad discipline. Malian soldiers have been accused of fatally shooting civilians suspected of links to the Islamists. The military has promised to investigate the allegations.
Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed in Segou, Mali; Lori Hinnant in Paris; and Andrew Drake and Jerome Delay in Gao, Mali contributed to this report.