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French, Malian troops take Timbuktu's airport

French-led forces have taken control of the airport in Mali’s northern city of Timbuktu. The city had been held for almost a year by Islamist rebels.

Both the French and Malian armies confirmed on Monday  that their troops had taken control of the airport and other access points to the ancient city.

"We control the airport at Timbuktu," a senior officer with the Malian army told the AFP news agency. "We did not encounter any resistance."

Germany's DPA quoted a French military spokesman who said French special forces had parachuted into strategic points around the city overnight to prepare for Malian troops to retake the town. Colonel Thierry Burkhard said the French hoped to avoid combat in Timbuktu's historic old town, which has been designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

AFP quoted a source from the French reconnaissance team that first reached Timbuktu on Sunday, who said that they did not yet have full control of the town, which suffered under the rebels.

"We are in town but we are not many,” he said. “But the Islamists caused damages before leaving. They burned houses, and manuscripts. They beat people who were showing their joy."

The French-Malian advance into the outskirts of Timbuktu came less than 48 hours after they established control of the eastern town of Gao.

Colonel Burkhard said they now controlled the entire region between Timbuktu and Gao, an area along the Niger River known as the Niger Loop.

While their progress over the past few days has been rapid, France's defense minister warned that this could be deceptive.

"The terrorist groups are carrying out a strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north, primarily in Mali," Laurent Fabius told France 2 television on Monday. However, he didn't say whether French troops would intervene again if the rebels tried to return.

The effort to re-establish government control of Mali was originally meant to be an all-African affair, with France, Germany and others only committing to providing logistical support.

France though, stepped in with air power and combat troops to weeks ago, after rebels began advancing south towards the capital, Bamako.

pfd/hc (AFP, Reuters, dpa)