French and Malian troops were patrolling the streets of Timbuktu Tuesday, after retaking control of the historic desert city from Islamist insurgents who fled the region in the face of the French air strikes.
About 1,000 French soldiers and paratroopers and 200 Malian troops Monday seized Timbuktu airport and entered the city on the banks of the Niger River without resistance, news agencies reported.
“Timbuktu has fallen,” the city’s mayor, Halle Ousmane Cissé, told the New York Times over phone from the Malian capital, Bamako, where he has been in exile since the Islamist militants took over the city 10 months ago. He said he planned to return to his city Tuesday.
Helicopters were maintaining a watch over the city, as the government troops stood prepared for a guerrilla war.
"It's an enemy that can quickly melt into the populace,” Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said at a briefing in Paris, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
"They've seen that fighting us directly rarely ends well for them. They're not stupid, and they are choosing a mode of action that avoids confrontation—at least for now,” Col. Burkhard said.
The recapture of Timbuktu followed the capture of Gao by the joint government troops over the weekend. Gao, another major town in Mali's north, had been occupied by the alliance of jihadist groups for the last one year.
A third town in Mali's vast desert in north, Kidal, continued to be under insurgent control. But the secular Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym MNLA), who are seeking autonomy for their northern region, said Monday they had taken charge in Kidal after the Islamist fighters abandoned it.
An unnamed diplomat in Bamako confirmed to Reuters the MNLA takeover of Kidal.
Meanwhile, an international donor conference to raise funds and troops to help the military operation in Mali opened Tuesday at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia's capital.
"The whole world has gathered here, it's very good for Mali," Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly was quoted as saying by the AFP.
African Union (AU) leaders and officials, as well as representatives from the U.N., European Union, Japan and the U.S. will take part in the conference.
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said Monday the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) would cost $460 million, with the AU pledging to contribute an "unprecedented" $50 million for the mission and Mali's army, the AFP report said.
Though diplomats have suggested an estimate of $700 million to aid AFISMA and the Malian army, excluding the humanitarian costs, it remains to be seen how much the conference will be able to raise.
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