French troops deployed in last Mali rebel strongholds
By Richard Valdmanis and John Irish
DOUENTZA, Mali/PARIS (Reuters) - French troops seized the airport in Mali's northern town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by Islamist insurgents, as they moved to wrap up the first phase of a military operation to wrest northern Mali from rebel hands.
France has deployed some 4,500 troops in a three-week ground and air offensive to break the Islamist rebels' 10-month grip on major northern towns. The mission is aimed at heading off the risk of Mali being used as a springboard for jihadist attacks in the wider region or Europe.
The French military plans to gradually hand over to a larger African force, tasked with rooting out insurgents in their mountain redoubts near Algeria's border.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French forces using planes and helicopters defied a sandstorm late on Tuesday to capture the airport but had been prevented by the bad weather from entering the town itself.
"The terrorist forces are pulling back to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains which are difficult to access," Le Drian told a news conference. "There is support from Chadian and Nigerian troops coming from the south."
The deployment of French troops to remote Kidal puts them in direct contact with pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels, whose rebellion last year was hijacked by the Islamist radicals. Le Drian said France had established good relations with local Tuareg chieftains before sending in troops.
MNLA leaders say they are ready to fight al Qaeda but many Malians, including the powerful military top brass in the capital Bamako, blame them for the division of the country. They view Paris' liaisons with the Tuaregs with suspicion.
French and Malian troops retook the major Saharan trading towns of Gao and Timbuktu at the weekend. Continued...