BAMAKO, MALI - French forces have entered Kidal, the last major stronghold of Islamist militants who seized control of northern Mali last year.
French troops say they have taken control of the airport in the far northern town of Kidal -- the third, and last, major northern town to be retaken during this nearly three-week, French-backed intervention against al-Qaida linked Islamist rebels.
The militants seized control of northern Mali in April on the heels of a military coup in the south that further weakened the Malian army.
France began aerial bombardments and then ground operations in Mali to help counter a surprise offensive southward by Islamist rebels on January 10.
Cell phone communications are cut to Kidal. The president of Kidal's regional assembly, Haminy Belco Maiga, is in touch with the town via satellite phone.
He says the French arrived Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. aboard four planes and some helicopters. He says vehicles on the ground used their headlights to indicate the runway. He says there was no fighting and it appears everything was organized in advance which would indicate a prior agreement made with the MNLA.
The MNLA is the secular Tuareg separatist group that claimed Monday to have taken control of Kidal from the Malian-led Islamist group, Ansar Dine, which had previously held the town.
Maiga said the MNLA remains on the "periphery of the town" and Ansar Dine appears to have fled to surrounding villages and towns further north.
French troops arrived in Kidal without their Malian counterparts. That's a notable departure from how they have been liberating other key towns and a source of concern for northern leaders in Bamako, like Maiga.
Maiga says he does not consider the town liberated until Malian soldiers enter Kidal. He says there is concern that the French are negotiating with fighters, like the MNLA, something that should be reserved for Malian authorities.
French and Malian troops continue to work to secure the other two other major rebel strongholds in the north, the cities of Gao and Timbuktu. Road access to the north remains blocked.
Both towns were taken in the past week without much of a fight. Residents say many Islamist fighters had already fled before troops arrived. Malian military sources say the Islamists are believed to have dispersed -- abandoning their vehicles and moving in small groups in an effort to blend in with the population.
Analysts worry that those remaining Islamist fighters could take refuge in the remote, mountainous parts of the far north. They could then mount guerilla-style attacks against targets in Mali and neighboring countries.
Military sources say the more than 6,000 troops expected to be deployed to Mali from Chad and from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS will be key to securing and holding the vast territory.
France has said throughout its military operations in Mali that it plans to pass the baton to those African troops.
The French defense ministry said Tuesday that 2,900 African forces are already on the ground in Mali. France has approximately 2,000 soldiers there.