TIMBUKTU: French and Malian forces were patrolling the desert city of Timbuktu on Tuesday after receiving a heroes' welcome from locals, as Australia committed $10 million to the efforts to drive back Islamic militants in Mali.
With the recapture of Timbuktu, only one Islamist stronghold remains to be retaken: the town of Kidal, 1500 kilometres north-east of the capital, Bamako.
Mali troops cheered in Timbuktu
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Mali troops cheered in Timbuktu
RAW VISION: residents of Timbuktu cheer and wave flags as French and Malian troops enter the town in northern Mali.
Asked if French troops would press on to try to force the Islamists out of the mountainous north of the country, the French President, Francois Hollande, said: ''Now the Africans can take over …
''We know that this is the most difficult part because the terrorists are hidden there and can still carry out extremely dangerous operations, for neighbouring countries and Mali,'' he said.
Australia will not send troops to support the French-led international intervention, though Britain is reportedly prepared to offer a modest force of up to 200 soldiers for training and other non-combat roles.
The Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, and the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, said on Tuesday Australia would provide $5 million for operational costs such as military staffing, logistics and equipment. Another $5 million will go towards humanitarian assistance.
''The situation in Mali is one of the most serious peace, security and humanitarian challenges facing Africa, with regional and global consequences given the involvement of terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the backdrop of food insecurity across the Sahel,'' a statement from the ministers said.
Residents of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara desert erupted in joy as French and Malian troops drove in on Monday. ''Mali, Mali, Mali,'' they shouted, as they waved French and Malian flags.
''There were no shots fired, no blood spilt. Not even passive resistance with traps,'' said Colonel Frederic Gout, head of French helicopter operations in the city.
Residents said many of the Islamist occupiers had left several days earlier, as French air strikes rained down on their bases across the north. The electricity and the phone networks were both out of action.
Timbuktu was for centuries a cosmopolitan city and a centre of Islamic learning. Radical Islamists seized it in April last year in the chaos that followed a military coup in March.
They forced women to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned. The militants destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.
But on Monday residents were celebrating. Lahlia Garba, a woman in her 50s, expressed her relief that the hardline Islamists had been forced out.
''I had to wear a burqa, gloves and cover everything,'' she said.
Hama Cisse, another Timbuktu resident, exclaimed: ''We are independent again! We were held hostage for 10 months but it seemed like 10 years.''
The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has warned Mali over reports its army has committed abuses. Rights groups and journalists have reported allegations that Malian troops have executed suspects in towns recaptured during the offensive.
''All those alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in Mali must be held accountable,'' she said.
The advance into Timbuktu came 18 days after France launched its offensive to wrest the desert north from the Islamists with the support of Malian troops.
France has 2900 soldiers in Mali. Nearly 8000 from Chad and the west African bloc ECOWAS are due to take over from them, but deployment has been slow. The force will need a budget of $460 million, the African Union said.
Agence France-Presse, with David Wroe