PARIS // France's defence minister is calling the nearly three-week-old military operation in Mali a success.
Defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made the comments yesterday after French-led forces took control of the three provincial capitals held by the Islamists since last April.
But Mr Le Drian told France Inter radio that doesn't mean that the military risks and combat are finished.
He says the French don't intend to stay but "this isn't the time to disengage".
France launched its military offensive January 11 after radical Islamists surged into central Mali from their strongholds in the north.
The French and Malians have recaptured Gao and Timbuktu, and announced on Wednesday that forces had arrived in Kidal.
Yesterday, French warplanes blasted command centres, training camps and depots run by extremists in the mountains of north Mali, the French military confirmed.
The "fairly significant" air strikes were carried out over the past few days in the Aguelhok region in the country's north-east, near the border with Algeria, Colonel Thierry Burkhard, the military spokesman, said.
Aguelhok lies north of Kidal, the last town occupied by militants, where on Wednesday French troops took control of the airport ahead of securing the town itself.
Mr Burkhard said a column of 1,400 Chadian soldiers – part of a regional African force being set up to help chase out the Islamists – was heading by road towards Kidal from the Niger border.
Yesterday, a landmine killed two Malian soldiers in territory recaptured from rebels, a sign the extremists remain a threat despite being routed by a French-led offensive in the north.
As French troops stood at the gates of Kidal, the last rebel bastion still to be recaptured in the lightning three-week assault, the United Nations was speeding up possible plans to incorporate African troops, who are slowly deploying in Mali, into a formal UN peacekeeping force.
Mali's president has ruled out any talks with the extremists and accused them of merely "looking for a way out".
Mr Le Drian said he supported a UN peacekeeping force for Mali, saying it would be "very positive".
France now has 3,500 troops on the ground.