Islamist militants have lost more ground in northern Mali, with French and Malian troops taking the city of Timbuktu and secular Tuareg rebels announcing they have seized the city of Kidal.
A spokesman for Tuareg rebel group MNLA told VOA on Monday that the group's fighters now control Kidal and the nearby town of Tessalit. There has been no independent confirmation of the claim.
Meanwhile, French media reports say French and Malian troops entered central Timbuktu Monday, a day after they seized the local airport and the key roads that lead to the historic city.
The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO lists Timbuktu as a World Heritage site for its ancient mosques and shrines, some of which date back to the 15th century. But Islamist group Ansar Dine considers the sites sacrilegious, and the militants destroyed some mausoleums while they controlled the city.
Timbuktu's mayor said Monday that Islamists fleeing the town set fire to a library housing thousands of historic manuscripts. Officials say they do not yet know the extent of the damage.
Earlier, VOA correspondent Anne Look, who is in Malian town of Sevare, reported most Malians are cheered by the Islamists' retreat.
“What’s interesting when I talk to people both in Bamako and in the north, there’s a real sense, especially among average folk but among the military people that I talked to, that they’ve got the enemy on the run, that these kind of landmark victories -- taking back Gao over the weekend, and getting so close to Timbuktu -- are really boosting morale," she said.
French and Malian forces retook Gao on Saturday from Islamists who fled without resistance.
Afterward, residents of Gao played music in the streets, danced, smoked and wore Western-style clothing, celebrating their first full day in months without the strict Islamic law the militants had imposed.
France began a military offensive in Mali earlier this month after Islamist rebels who had seized control of much of the country's northern territory last year began pushing toward Bamako.
The Islamist rebels had joined with ethnic Tuaregs to take control of northern Mali following a government coup in March that left a power vacuum in the country. The Islamist groups later took full control of the northern region and imposed strict Islamic law.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that a key component to resolving the crisis in Mali is new elections to overturn the results of the coup. However, she softened the U.S. stance that Mali needs to hold elections by April.
"The date had been in April. I think obviously we're not going to prejudge whether security is going to be restored in a manner that is going to enable that," she said. "What we want is a national unity conversation about what is appropriate and security standards so that elections can go forward as soon as possible."
In another development Monday, the International Monetary Fund said it would give Mali an emergency loan of $18.4 million.
French soldiers patrol outside Djinguereber mosque after Friday prayers in the center of Timbuktu February 1, 2013.
People hold Malian and French flags during the reopening ceremony of Mahamane Fondogoumo elementary school in the town center of Timbuktu, February 1, 2013.
Children celebrate holding a French flag during the reopening ceremony of Mahamane Fondogoumo elementary school in the town center of Timbuktu February 1, 2013.
Islamist rebel prisoners guarded by Malian gendarmes are seen at a military camp in the center of Timbuktu February 1, 2013.
Malian gendarmes show weapons used by Islamist rebels at a military camp in the center of Timbuktu February 1, 2013.
During an official visit organized by the French military, residents and journalists gather around a French Sagay tank positioned overlooking the bridge crossing the river Niger at the entrance of Gao, Mali, January 31, 2013.
During an official visit organized by the French military, French troops are positioned overlooking the bridge crossing the river Niger at the entrance of Gao, Mali, January 31, 2013.
Three Malian girls walk in the streets of Gao, Mali, January 31, 2013.
Chadian soldiers patrol the streets of Gao, Mali, January 29, 2013.
This photo released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office shows a crowd cheering the arrival of French soldiers in Timbuktu, Mali, January 28, 2013.