French-led forces were reported in control of three key towns in northern Mali on Wednesday, after al-Qaida-linked militants fled their last stronghold and escaped into a vast desert region with their weapons.
Insurgents mounted no resistance as French and Malian troops arrived at the Kidal airport Wednesday, just days after the capture of Gao and Timbuktu.
Since the cities were recaptured so rapidly and easily, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country's forces would be leaving Mali sooner than expected. An African intervention force backed by the United Nations is preparing to deploy more than 8,000 troops to the region.
The African troops will be charged with holding the towns and tracking down Islamist fighters. French authorities say the insurgents melted into villages in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains and surrounding desert areas.
The U.S. State Department welcomed the successes of the French-led force, and said its replacements will be challenged to hold the newly liberated towns. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the African force faces the task of pursuing the Islamists to ensure they cannot regroup and return.
The extremists are well armed, and they are known to have recruited child soldiers. Analysts say they are likely to use civilians as human shields to defend themselves.
Meanwhile, authorities in Timbuktu say the vast majority of ancient manuscripts housed in the city - texts on religion, medicine and mathematics dating back to the 13th century - are reported to be safe.
The city's mayor reported that Islamists set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a major manuscript library, as they fled the town. However, Shamil Jeppie, an expert on ancient manuscripts from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said Wednesday that most of priceless books and papers were hidden by residents of Timbuktu during the 10 months while Islamists held power.
In a document sent to VOA, Jeppie said the custodians of Timbuktu's libraries had "worked quietly through the rebel occupation" to ensure that documents were kept safe. He said a limited number of items were damaged or stolen, but that there was no "malicious" destruction of any complete library or collection.
French troops arrived in Mali nearly three weeks ago to push back Islamist forces heading for the capital, Bamako.
Islamist groups and MNLA separatists fighting with them had seized key towns in northern Mali last year in the confusion that followed a brief coup against Mali's central government in March, and they extended their control over the region in the months that followed.