French troops secured on Wednesday the northern Malian town of Kidal, the last major stronghold in the region for Islamist insurgents in the region.
Kidal, near the border with Algeria, was recaptured within days of the French and Malian forces retaking two other provincial capitals — Gao and Timbuktu — which had been under the control of Islamists for a year.
Haminy Belco Maiga, president of the regional assembly of Kidal, said the forces met no resistance.
"The French arrived aboard four planes," Maiga was quoted as saying by the BBC. "They took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat. The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead."
After months of living under militant-enforced Islamic law, which forced them into wearing black veils in public, women in Gao have returned to their traditional bright colors, makeup and jewels, according to the Associated Press.
“The jihadists were here for six months,” a local school teacher in Douentza, a town in the Mopti region of central Mali, told British journalist Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4. “They forced us to wear veils or stay inside. They beat people for smoking. I had to close the school. They hate everything nice like music and photographs. They even tried to take our mobile phones.”
However, many fear that the Islamists may attempt to hide among civilian populations in villages to return and attack the weaker African forces once the French troops leave, according to an AP report.
“It's an enemy that can quickly melt into the populace,” Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said Monday 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.”
Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that France intended to leave Mali "quickly,” and it was up to the African Union nations to take over the operation.
"Now it's up to African countries to take over," Fabius told Le Parisien Wednesday. "We decided to put the means in — men and supplies — to make the mission succeed and hit hard. But the French aspect was never expected to be maintained. We will leave quickly."
“Malian authorities must engage without further delay in discussions with legitimate representatives of northern populations and non-terrorist armed groups that recognize the integrity of Mali," a French foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying Wednesday by the WSJ. "Only a north-south dialogue will lay the ground for the return of Malian state authority in the north of the country."
Mali’s Parliament approved a “road map” Tuesday suggesting that a commission needed to be set up for national reconciliation.
An international donor conference Tuesday to raise funds and troops to help the military operation in Mali at the African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa pledged $455.5 million for the African-led Support Mission in Mali.