France said it carried out major air strikes Sunday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali’s desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a whirlwind visit by President Francois Hollande.
An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centres run by extremists overnight in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.
Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the northeastern town for the first time Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour, a victory lap that came three weeks into a campaign, so far successful, to oust the fighters who occupied northern Mali for 10 months.
Ecstatic crowds greeted Hollande in the capital Bamako and the fabled city of Timbuktu with cheers of “Vive la France! Long live Hollande!”, offering him a camel draped in a French flag.
Hollande called the trip “the most important day of my political life”.
The French-led forces have met little resistance in their campaign to stop al Qaeda-linked groups from seizing the whole country.
Officials say many fighters have likely fled to the mountainous terrain around Kidal.
The situation on the ground in Kidal is delicate, with seven French hostages believed to be in the area and the rebels splintered into factions, with the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) extending an olive branch by renouncing “extremism and terrorism”.
The number three leader of the armed group that controlled Timbuktu, Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), was arrested near the Algerian border by a rival group and taken to Kidal on Sunday, sources said.
“Mohamed Moussa Ag Mouhamed… the one who sowed terror, who ordered people’s hands cut off, who supported the strict application of sharia, was arrested by an armed group,” a Malian security source said.
The arrest was believed to have been carried out either by the MIA or their allies the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), Tuareg separatists who started the rebellion that unleashed Mali’s current crisis but then fell out with their allies.
The information was confirmed by Kidal regional official Abdoulaye Toure, who called Mohamed Moussa “the brain of the organisation”.
The Kidal region borders Algeria, which was reluctantly drawn into the Malian conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace.
In retaliation, militants attacked an Algerian gas field on January 16, unleashing a hostage crisis that left 37 foreigners dead.
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said Sunday that while there was cause for “optimism” on the situation in Mali, “it is still marked by problems facing Malians and those who are helping them re-establish stability and security.”