TIMBUKTU, Mali, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- African troops can take over the battle against al-Qaida in Mali now that French-led Malian forces reclaimed Timbuktu, French President Francois Hollande said.
"We are winning this battle," Hollande said in televised remarks after France said its forces cleared a path for Malian soldiers to enter the storied desert city without resistance.
"When I say, 'We,' this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French," Hollande said.
"Now, the Africans can take over," he said.
"They're the ones who will go into the area of the north, which we know is the most difficult because the terrorists are hidden there and can still lead operations that are extremely dangerous for neighboring countries and for Mali," he said.
Timbuktu Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse was expected to return to the city on the southern edge of the Sahara Tuesday after living in exile in the capital, Bamako, since the Islamist militant takeover from Malian forces April 1, 2012.
That takeover came a day after militants captured the city of Gao, on the River Niger about 200 miles east-southeast of Timbuktu, and declared it the capital of their proclaimed independent Islamic nation of Azawa, separate from Mali.
French-led Malian forces retook Gao Sunday.
"In 48 hours, we have taken control of the Niger belt," French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard told reporters in Paris, referring to the Niger River basin stretching between Gao and Timbuktu.
Burkhard said forces also controlled smaller settlements between the two strategic cities.
French officials declined to comment on whether French troops would take part in fighting for the rebel-held desert town of Kidal, the last remaining significant rebel stronghold in northern Mali.
French jets pounded the mountainous town, 180 miles northeast of Gao, Sunday, the French Defense Ministry said.
Some 3,500 French troops are in Mali, a 1,000 increase since Saturday, French officials said.
The French campaign began Jan. 11 after the al-Qaida-linked militants moved closer to Bamako.