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French military says troops control airport in key Malian city

From Antonia Mortensen, CNN
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 0708 GMT (1508 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It is the last major town in the sweep to flush out Islamist militants
  • Control of the airport comes days after troops seized Timbuktu and Gao cities
  • "We are winning in Mali," French President Francois Hollande says
  • The French-led offensive started January 10

Read a version of this story on CNN Arabic.

(CNN) -- In the latest blow to militants, the French military said Wednesday it has seized the airport in Kidal, the last major town under rebel control in northern Mali.

If the forces secure the town, it will be the last major city in their sweep north to flush out Islamist militants in Mali, France's former colony.

Read more: Why Mali matters?

France sent its troops at Mali's request after the Islamists seized the strategic town of Konna on January 10. The town is back under Malian control.

In addition, French-led troops now control Timbuktu and Gao cities, and the swath in between that was an Islamist stronghold for almost a year, the French Defense Ministry said this week.

CNN iReport: Timbuktu on my mind

Life trickled back to normal in Timbuktu, the ancient desert city and home to world-famous cultural sites.

"We are winning in Mali," French President Francois Hollande said Monday.

France, which is leading the offensive, has 2,150 soldiers in Mali and 1,000 more troops supporting the operation from elsewhere.

Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks. Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks.
Photos: Mali military battles Islamist insurgents
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Photos: Fighting Islamists in Mali Photos: Fighting Islamists in Mali
France to hand Mali war to Africans
Preserving Timbuktu's treasures
Gao, Mali, celebrates liberation
What led to Mali's disintegration?

The United States has also stepped up its involvement in the conflict by conducting aerial refueling missions on top of the intelligence and airlift support.

What's behind the instability in Mali?

The United Kingdom said it is prepared to provide 240 troops to provide military training support, but will not take part in combat.

Up to 40 of those troops will be deployed to a European Union military training mission in Mali and the rest in English-speaking West African countries.

The nations are teaming up to prevent the Islamists from turning the once peaceful democracy into a haven for international terrorists.

As nations pledge more help, additional funds streamed in as well.

Among the donors, Japan pledged $120 million, the United States $96 million pending congressional approval and the European Union just over $67 million.

Read more: U.S. steps up involvement in Mali

Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana pledged $3 million each, and China and India pledged $1 million each.

Islamic extremists carved out a large portion in northern Mali last year, taking advantage of a chaotic situation after a military coup.

They banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and destroyed historic tombs and shrines in the region.

More than 380,000 people fled northern Mali in the past year, the United Nations says.

But with the French-led offensive sending the militants on the run, residents once again roamed the streets without fear.

Villagers chanted "Mali! Mali!" as a column of military vehicles drove through Gao over the weekend.

CNN's Nima Elbagir and Jim Bittermann contributed to this report

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