The French air force has launched dozens of airstrikes on rebel targets near a town in northeastern Mali. Kidal is the last stronghold for the rebels, who have been pushed back by French soldiers.
French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said 30 warplanes were involved in the strikes that targeted Islamist extremist training and logistics centers in the Tessalit area, just outside of Kidal overnight.
French troops captured Kidal's airport several days ago. Supported by Malian troops, they are now said to be trying to secure the city itself, which is located near Mali's border with Algeria.
This comes a day after Islamist rebels launched attacks aimed at asserting their control over the city.
The fighting in Kidal, however, was overshadowed on Saturday by a visit to Mali by French President Francois Hollande who received a hero's welcome when he arrived in the capital, Bamako.
"You're celebrating a new kind of independence, not from colonialism but from terrorism," Hollande told thousands of spectators in a central square.
"We'll stay as long as we need to, but there's no question of us getting entrenched here, this is a short operation. We'll stay by your side as you address rebuilding in your nation."
Earlier in the day he received a similar reception when he visited the northern town of Timbuktu, which had been liberated by French forces less than a week earlier.
Hollande pledged to withdraw French combat troops from Mali once the country had regained control over its entire territory and a United Nations-backed African military force had taken over.
That force is expected to number more than 8,000, but its deployment has suffered repeated setbacks, including shortages of kit and airlift capacity and questions about who will fund its estimated $1 billion (732,000 euros) cost.
The US and the European Union have backed France's military campaign in Mali, fearing the Islamist militants, who had seized the north of the country almost a year ago, could have used it as a safe haven to plot terror attacks.
Germany is planning to send around 40 military trainers to support Mali's armed forces. Speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the Bundeswehr troops, who would not be involved in a combat role, could be in Mali by early next month. The cabinet and the Bundestag still have to approve the plan.
pfd/hc (dpa, AFP, Reuters)
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