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 French air strikes.
“Timbuktu has fallen,” the city’s mayor, Halle Ousmane Cissé, told the New York Times by phone from Mali’s capital Bamako, about 430 miles to the southeast of Timbuktu, where he fled after 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. On Monday, about 1,000 French soldiers and 200 Malian troops regained control of the airport in Timbuktu and entered the city on the banks of the Niger River without resistance, news agencies reported.
"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.”
The recapture of Timbuktu followed the capture of Gao by the joint forces over the weekend. Gao, about 200 miles east of Timbuku, had been occupied by an alliance of jihadist groups for the past year.
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A third town in Mali's vast desert in north, Kidal, about 300 miles northeast of Timbuktu, 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) said Monday they had taken charge in Kidal after the Islamist fighters abandoned it. The Tuareg are fighting their own struggle for autonomy.
An unnamed diplomat in Bamako confirmed to Reuters that the MNLA had seized control 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 the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
"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) officials, as well as representatives from the U.N., European Union, Japan and the U.S. will take part in the conference.