BAMAKO — French troops on Wednesday entered Kidal, the last Islamist bastion in Mali’s north after a whirlwind Paris-led offensive, as France urged peace talks to douse ethnic tensions targeting Arabs and Tuaregs.

The arrival of the French troops in Kidal comes days after the capture of Gao and Timbuktu in a whirlwind three-week campaign that Paris hopes to wind down and hand over to African forces.

“French elements were deployed overnight in Kidal,” French army spokesman Thierry Burkhard told AFP in Paris.

Several sources reported that French troops had landed at Kidal’s airport.

“We confirm that French aircraft are on the Kidal landing strip and that protection helicopters are in the sky,” said a regional security source.

A spokesman for the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad, which on Monday announced it had taken control of the town, said its leader was speaking to the French.

Kidal lies 1,500 kilometres northeast of the capital Bamako and until recently was controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).

Last Thursday, however, the newly formed group announced it had split from Ansar Dine, that it rejected “extremism and terrorism” and wanted to find a peaceful solution to Mali’s crisis.

Ansar Dine and two other Islamist groups took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in Bamako last March to seize the north, imposing a brutal form of Islamic law.

Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases were executed while Islamists also destroyed sacred shrines in the ancient city of Timbuktu that they considered idolatrous.

France swept to Mali’s aid on January 11 as the Islamists advanced south towards Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could become a haven for terrorists.

But in the longer term, Paris regards a political settlement between the government in Bamako and Tuaregs seeking a degree of self-rule as crucial to Mali’s stability.

The Malian parliament on Tuesday adopted a political roadmap which included a commitment to holding elections by July and negotiations with representatives of the north.

“This political process now has to advance concretely,” French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said, urging speedy “negotiations with the legitimate representatives of the peoples of the north and non-terrorist armed groups that recognise the integrity of Mali”.

“Only a north-south dialogue will prepare the ground for the Malian state to return to the north of the country,” he said.

Islamists far from being neutralised

Several reports say the main Islamist chiefs, Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine and the Algerian Abou Zeid of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have retreated to the mountains in the Kidal region, which borders Algeria and Niger.

In the face of ground strikes and devastating air bombings that destroyed their headquarters in Timbuktu as well as their fuel supplies and armoury, the Islamists had no choice but to flee.

But the lack of resistance for the moment does not mean they have been neutralised, said Alain Antil, the head of sub-Saharan affairs at the French Institute of International Relations.

“They can turn to classic guerrilla tactics including harassment, rapid attacks with kidnappings and bombings,” said Antil.

In Timbuktu on Tuesday, a day after the troops drove in to an ecstatic welcome, hundreds of people looted shops they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians accused of backing the Islamists.

Experts are still trying to assess exactly how many of the city’s priceless ancient manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages were destroyed when fleeing Islamists set fire to the building housing them.

But Shamil Jeppie, Timbuktu Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said more than 90 per cent of the ancient books and manuscripts were smuggled away before Islamists overran the city last year.

At a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Tuesday, African leaders and international officials pledged more than $455 million (340 million euros) for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.

Lack of cash and equipment has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) which is expected to take from the French army.

So far, just 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, many of them from Chad, whose contingent is independent from the AFISMA force. The bulk of fighting has been borne by some 2,900 French troops.