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French troops at gates of last major city in northern Mali

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Bamako: French troops were at the gates of the last major city in northern Mali still outside their control early Wednesday after their forces landed at the airport in Kidal, local sources said.

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

A spokesman for the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently announced it had taken control of Kidal, said the French had landed there.

"Our leader is currently talking with them."

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

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

Kidal is the third of the major cities in northern Mali which, along with Gao and Timbuktu, were for 10 months were under the control of hardline Islamists.

They profited from the chaos following a military coup last March to seize the north and imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law there. Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases were executed.

France swept to Mali's aid on January 11 as the Islamists advanced south towards Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could end up a haven for extremists.

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

In Timbuktu Tuesday, a day after the troops drove in to an ecstatic welcome, hundreds of people looted shops they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians accused of backing the Islamists.

They took everything, from arms and military communications equipment to televisions, food and furniture, before Malian soldiers restored order.

At a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, African leaders and international officials pledged more than USD 455 million for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.

Lack of cash and equipment has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) which is expected to take from the French army.

AFP

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