The fall of Kiddal – expected soon – would end the lightning ground war launched by French and Malian forces a week ago. Almost all populated parts of Mali have now been recaptured from the three Islamist groups linked to Al-Qa’ida who overran the immense northern deserts of the country last year.

The remaining rebels are believed to have fled into the mountains north of Kiddal or crossed the borders into Algeria or Mauretania. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said: “We have killed many of them… The terrorists have been knocked off balance. (They are) very much damaged.”

French officials admit, however, that  a longer, more painful, counter-insurgency part of the conflict may be about to begin. Mr Fabius suggested yesterday that France hoped to leave this phase to Malian troops and the 5,000 strong African force which is already assembling in Mali.

“The French military presence has no business to remain… We will leave rapidly,” he said.

To avoid ethnic conflict, no Malian troops have accompanied the French in their 500 mile jump to the north-east and the Tuareg and Arab-dominated town of Kiddal. The town has been the epicentre of Tuareg discontent with domination by the far more populous black African south of Mali for decades.

The two secular, Tuareg nationalist groups in control of Kiddal have warned of an “ethnic bloodbath” if Malian government soldiers are allowed to come into the region. It appears that only French forces will occupy the town for the time being.

There was more hopeful news on the level of destruction wreaked by Islamist rebels on the cultural heritage of the ancient town of Timbuktu. Shamil Jeppie, the man in charge of a project to preserve thousands of medieval manuscripts and books in Tinmbuktu, said that “more than 90 per cent” had been moved to safety before the rebels attempted to burn them last week.

It appears, however, that at least a dozen mausoleums of medieval Sufi saints have been destroyed  since the Islamists captured Timbaktu last summer.

Mali latest: France looks for exit after occupying last large town held by rebels – The Independent
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