BAMAKO, Feb. 8 (Xinhua) -- As its military offensive against Islamist rebels in Mali goes into the fifth week, the French troops on Thursday continued their northward advance to capture more towns, alleviating concerns that the West African country may plunge into chaos following the insurgence.
The French troops Thursday began to withdraw from the northern city of Timbuktu, which was once a booming trade center and boasts important cultural relics, with some destroyed by the rebels only in recent weeks.
According to reports, only a small number of French soldiers stayed in the city to take guard along with the Malian government forces, which French military officers said should now be shouldering major security responsibility there.
French troops also took control of the Kidal airport, while the city and surroundings are patrolled by some of the 1,800 Chadian troops taking part in the operation.
Though war dust seemed to have settled in Timbuktu and Kidal, operations were still going on to recapture the strategic town of Gao, nearly two weeks after the French and Malian troops moved into the area.
Further to the north, the French and Chadian soldiers are also poised to take hold in the border town of Tessalit, after their victory in recapturing the town of Aguelhok nearby.
Some mountain caves in the two towns, located near the border with Algeria, were believed to be the hideouts for fleeing rebels.
Paris has said it could start scaling back its 4,000 troops from Mali as early as March and it also urged the United Nations to come up with a peacekeeping mission for Mali by April.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Wednesday urged a swift deployment of African forces in Mali, saying France could not be there for a long time.
The French military operations in Mali so far have been effective and successful, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the press on Thursday.
The UN chief also expressed the concern that the armed groups and terrorist elements in Mali that fled amid French troops' offensive might come back and stage reprisal attacks.
While in Cairo, those attending a two-day summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) agreed Thursday to support the unity of Mali and the preservation of its sovereignty.
A concluding statement of the OIC summit showed support for the initiatives provided by the African Union to resolve the conflict, and backed efforts to deploy international military mission in Mali under African leadership.