France has said it plans to hand over Timbuktu security soon to African forces. Meanwhile, Malian secular Tuareg MNLA rebels, who hold control of Kidal, have said they caught two leading Islamist insurgents.
France says its Mirage and Rafale planes continued targeted airstrikes on hideouts of suspected Islamist extremists in northern Mali on Monday as Paris pushed for African troops to take over northern cities already secured by French troops.
"We want to be rapidly relieved by the AFISMA African forces in the cities that we hold," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio. He added that a Timbuktu handover, "could take place very quickly; we are working on it."
In the city's military camps, newly arrived Malian troops were seen cleaning their weapons on Monday and holding meetings to prepare to take over the security of the city once the French leave.
Islamist fighters, who had controlled northern Mali for 10 months, have fled into the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region near the Algerian border, after being driven from their strongholds by the three-week French-led assault.
The US and the European Union have backed France's three-week military campaign in Mali, citing fears that 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.
Top Islamists 'captured'
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the secular Tuareg liberation movement MNLA, who currently control Kidal, confirmed Monday the capture of the two leading Islamists.
"I can confirm that MNLA forces arrested Mohamed Moussa ag Mohamed al Mostafa and Oumeini Ould Baba Ahmed near the Algerian border on Saturday," spokesman Moussa ag Assarid told the dpa new agency.
Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed is an Islamist leader who imposed harsh sharia law in the northern city of Timbuktu, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed is accused of being a leading member of an al Qaeda affiliate. The two men were interrogated and transferred to MNLA-held Kidal.
The MNLA seized control of northern Mali last year but better-armed Islamist groups pushed them out. They eventually regained control of Kidal last week when Islamist fighters fled French airstrikes. French, Malian and Chadian troops have been working to secure the city from the rebels for nearly a week, as it is the only major town not in the control of French-led forces.
The Tuareg group says it is willing to help the French-led mission by capturing Islamist rebels. The MNLA are fighting for their own homeland in northern Mali, and have offered to hold peace talks with the government.
hc/ipj (Reuters, dpa, AP)