French troops enter Kidal in northern Mali


French troops have taken control of the airport in the northern Malian town of Kidal, the last rebel stronghold in the north, according to the French army and a local official.
Thierry Burkhard, the French armed forces spokesman, confirmed on Wednesday that French troops were in Kidal and had taken control of the airport.
“The operation is ongoing,” he said, declining to give further details.
Separately, Haminy Belco Maiga, president of the regional assembly of Kidal, speaking to Reuters news agency, said: “They arrived late last night and they deployed in four planes and some helicopters.” He said there were no immediate reports of resistance.
Kidal would be the last of northern Mali’s major towns to be retaken by French forces after they reached Gao and Timbuktu earlier this week in a campaign to drive al-Qaeda-linked fighters from Mali’s north.
France said the area had become a safe haven for fighters. Kidal is the capital of a desert region with the same name that the fighters are believed to have retreated to during nearly three weeks of French air attacks and an advance by hundreds of ground troops.
The French advance came a day after African leaders and international officials pledged hundreds of millions of dollars at a donor conference in Ethiopia to support military operations against rebels in Mali. Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s president, thanked the “entire international community” as nations offered cash or support at the meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa on Tuesday. About $600m has been pledged so far, including more than $120m from Japan and $96m from the US.
The conference comes a day after French-led forces seized Mali’s fabled city of Timbuktu as part of an offensive against fighters who have controlled northern Mali for about 10 months.
African leaders and officials, as well as representatives from the UN, EU and China, are taking part in the Addis Ababa conference.
“We all know the gravity of the crisis,” Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, AU commission chief, said.“It is a situation that requires a swift and effective international response for it threatens Mali, the region, the continent and even beyond.” The AU has promised to contribute $50m, but has estimated its force in Mali will cost $460m.
There is no clear figure for how much the Addis Ababa conference is aiming to raise, although diplomats have suggested some $700m will be needed for AFISMA and the Malian army, in addition to heavy humanitarian costs.
Alassane Ouattara, Ivory Coast president and chairman of 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), said there was an “urgent need to speed up the deployment” of regional troops.
A lack of cash and logistical resources has hampered the efforts of African troops to support Mali’s army.
So far, just 2,000 African troops have been deployed, with the bulk of the fighting borne by 2,500 French troops. France launched its offensive in Mali on January 11.