World Bulletin / News Desk
French troops took control on Wednesday of the airport of Mali's northeast town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by rebels, as they moved to wrap up the first phase of a military operation to wrest northern Mali from rebel hands.
A three-week ground and air offensive by French forces is expected to eventually hand over to a larger African force.
"They (the French) arrived late last night and deployed in four planes and some helicopters," Haminy Belco Maiga, president of Kidal's regional assembly of Kidal, told Reuters.
However, the deployment of French troops to remote Kidal puts them in direct contact with pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels operating there.
France's military operation in its former West African colony involves around 3,500 troops on the ground backed by warplanes, helicopters and armoured vehicles.
French and Malian troops retook the major Saharan trading towns of Gao and Timbuktu at the weekend.
The MNLA rebels, who want greater autonomy for the desert north, said they had moved fighters into Kidal after Islamists left the town earlier this week.
"For the moment, there is a coordination with the French troops," said Moussa Ag Assarid, the MNLA spokesman in Paris.
There were no reports of Malian government troops being in the town.
The MNLA took up arms against the Bamako government a year ago, seeking to carve out a new independent desert state.
After initially fighting alongside the Islamists, by June they had been forced out by their better armed and financed former allies.
"Unity in Mali"
Interim President Dioncounda Traore said on Tuesday his government would aim to hold national elections on July 31.
After months of being kept on the political sidelines, the MNLA said they were in contact with West African mediators who are trying to forge a national settlement to reunite Mali.
"We reiterate that we are ready to talk with Bamako and to find a political solution. We want self-determination, but all that will be up to negotiations which will determine at what level both parties can go," Ag Assarid said.
However, there have been cases in Gao and Timbuktu and other recaptured towns of reprisal attacks and looting of shops and residences belonging to Malian Tuaregs and Arabs suspected of sympathising with the MNLA and the Islamist rebels.Last Mod: 30 Ocak 2013, 16:03