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French forces have entered Kidal, the last major stronghold of Islamist militants who seized control of northern Mali last year.

The French military said Wednesday that troops took control of the Kidal airport and deployed in the town overnight, continuing a week-long push to retake the north's population centers.

Haminy Maiga, head of the Kidal regional assembly, said the French troops encountered no resistance.

The secular Tuareg rebel group MNLA said earlier this week that its fighters had taken control of Kidal.

It was not clear Wednesday whether the MNLA fighters were still in the town.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of ancient manuscripts in the Malian city of Timbuktu 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 the manuscripts at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said Wednesday that most of the books and papers were apparently hidden by local residents during the Islamists' 10-month rule.

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 there was "no malicious destruction of any library or collection."

He also said a senior researcher at the Ahmed Baba Institute said a majority of the library's material was stored at an older building, not the building that may have been torched by militants.

In another development Wednesday, France urged Mali's interim government to quickly begin talks with non-terrorist groups and other representatives in the country's north.

French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said only a "north-south dialogue" would enable the return of a Malian state in the country's north.

On Tuesday, French and Malian troops searched houses in Timbuktu and Gao after securing control of those cities, recovering weapons and explosives left by fleeing Islamists. At least five people suspected of collaborating with the militants were detained in Gao.

In Timbuktu, residents looted stores owned by Arabs and Tuaregs suspected of working with the militants, who left earlier this week.

French troops entered Mali nearly three weeks ago when the Islamists began moving towards the capital, Bamako. The Islamist groups and the MNLA seized control of the north after a coup in the capital, Bamako, last March. The Islamists later seized full control of the region.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that France will stay in Mali as long as necessary. But, there are already plans for an African-led force to take over peacekeeping duties.

International donors pledged $455 million Tuesday for a peacekeeping mission expected to cost as much as $1 billion.

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