French official: Troops to leave Mali soon

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SEVARE, Mali -- France's foreign minister said yesterday that French forces would depart Mali "quickly" following their success in taking control of the airport in Kidal, a key position in the last remaining urban stronghold of Islamist extremists in northern Mali.

French and Malian troops have recaptured two of the other provincial capitals, Timbuktu and Gao, in recent days.

Once France, with its thousands of troops, fighter planes and helicopters, leaves, Mali's weak army and soldiers from neighboring countries might be hard-pressed to retain control of northern Mali's cities if the Islamists attempt a comeback from their desert hideouts.

"Now it's up to African countries to take over," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the newspaper Le Parisien. "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."

Haminy Maiga, the interim president of the Kidal regional assembly, said French forces met no resistance when they arrived late Tuesday.

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"The French arrived at 9:30 p.m. aboard four planes, which landed one after another. Afterwards they took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat," said Maiga, who had been in touch with people in the town by satellite phone as all the normal phone networks were down.

"The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead," he added.

On Tuesday, a secular Tuareg rebel group had asserted that they were in control of Kidal and other small towns in northern Mali. Maiga said those fighters had left Kidal and were at the entry posts on the roads from Gao and Tessalit.

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