Bamako - French troops were at the gates of the last major city in northern Mali still outside their control early Wednesday after their forces landed at the airport in Kidal, local sources said.
"We confirm that French aircraft are on the Kidal landing strip and that protection helicopters are in the sky," said a regional security source and a senior Tuareg figure in Kidal also confirmed the report.
A spokesperson for the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently announced it had taken control of Kidal, said the French had landed there.
"Our leader is currently talking with them."
Kidal lies 1 500km northeast of the capital Bamako and until recently was controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
Last Thursday however, the newly formed IMA announced it had split from Ansar Dine, that it rejected "extremism and terrorism" and wanted to find a peaceful solution to Mali's crisis.
Kidal is the third of the major cities in northern Mali which, along with Gao and Timbuktu, were for 10 months were under the control of hardline Islamists.
They profited from the chaos following a military coup last March to seize the north and imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law there. Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases were executed.
France swept to Mali's aid on January 11 as the Islamists advanced south towards Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could end up a haven for extremists.
With the recapture of Timbuktu by French-led forces on Monday, Kidal became the last major northern city still outside their control.
Fresh pledges of international support
In Timbuktu on Tuesday, a day after the troops drove in to an ecstatic welcome, hundreds of people looted shops they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians accused of backing the Islamists.
They took everything, from arms and military communications equipment to televisions, food and furniture, before Malian soldiers restored order.
At a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, African leaders and international officials pledged more than $455m for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.
Lack of cash and equipment has hampered deployment of nearly 6 000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) which is expected to take from the French army.
So far, just 2 000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, many of them from Chad whose contingent is independent from the AFISMA force. The bulk of fighting has been borne by some 2 900 French troops.
AFISMA spokesperson Colonel Yao Adjoumani of Ivory Coast said that not counting the Chadians, so far they had 1 428 soldiers on the ground: from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
In Washington, the Pentagon said US planes would help fly African troops into the region. The US has already started supplying air refuelling facilities for French aircraft and has flown in supplies and equipment for the mission.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced additional aid of $63m for African forces and Malian troops in Addis Ababa in the form of logistical support and material.
Transparent and credible elections
Britain said it was ready to boost the number of military personnel helping the operation to more than 300, adding around 240 to more than 90 military personnel already in the region supporting the mission.
Experts were still trying to assess exactly how many of the city's priceless ancient manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages had been destroyed when fleeing Islamists set fire to the building housing them.
The custodian of the collection said some of the documents had been smuggled to safety before insurgents seized the town 10 months ago, in the chaos that followed the military coup.
The militants destroyed ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu that they considered idolatrous.
On Tuesday interim President Dioncounda Traore said he hoped to hold "transparent and credible" elections by July 31.
Mali's parliament unanimously approved government proposals to start talks with "armed groups which do not threaten either the integrity or the secular nature" of the state.
French Foreign Minister Fabius insisted that France's troops would leave Mali quickly, in comments to Le Parisien newspaper published on Wednesday.
"Freeing Gao and Timbuktu very quickly was part of the plan," he said.
"Now it's for the African countries to take over," he added, echoing comments made by President Francois Hollande on Monday.