French President Francois Hollande has stressed African forces should lead the fight further north in Mali, after a series of victories. Meanwhile, Britain and the US are said to be examining their options.
French President Francois Hollande said French and African forces were winning their fight against Islamist rebels in Mali after seizing the key town of Timbuktu.
"We're winning this battle," Hollande said during a press conference in Paris on Monday, while wary of sounding too triumphant. "Northern Mali is still under the terrorists' control."
With the rebels having withdrawn into the arid north of the country, Hollande reiterated previous comments that African troops would take the lead role in finishing the job.
"It will be the Africans, as I have indicated before, who will see to it that Mali's territorial integrity is restored."
"They are the ones who will go into the northern part, which we know is the most difficult because that's where the terrorists are hiding," Hollande said.
Flag-waving, no resistance
As soldiers entered Timbuktu encountering no apparent resistance, residents waved French and Malian flags and shouted "Mali, Mali, Mali."
The French and Malian-led operation had surrounded the town early Monday morning, with ground forces seizing the airport to the south without firing a shot and paratroopers landing to the north with backup from combat helicopters.
The Islamists still retain control of the provincial capital of Kidal further north, and are believed to have a complex system of desert bases including self-constructed caves to which they can escape.
French operations against Islamist militants in Mali began 19 days ago when the insurgents moved closer to the south. Nearly 8,000 African troops from Chad and the west African grouping ECOWAS are expected to take over.
The mayor of Timbuktu, currently in the capital Bamako, said the insurgents had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba institute - a library rich with historical documents - as an act of retaliation before they fled late last week from the town.
Washington and London consider options
Media reports on Monday suggested that the US might be planning a drone base from which to attack Islamist extremists in the region. The prospect of a base for unmanned attack aircraft was first reported by the New York Times on Monday, with the AFP news agency suggesting that the base might be sited across the border from Mali in neighboring Niger.
Meanwhile, the British government was said to be considering increasing its help to France in Mali, media reports said on Tuesday, after a visit to Paris on Monday by Britain's national security advisor Kim Darroch.
Daily newspapers the Guardian and the Daily Mirror quoted a source saying that Britain could easily dispatch 200 troops if asked to by France. However, government sources played down the possibility of any combat role - stressing the soldiers would be there in a training capacity.
rc/jlw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
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