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Islamists in Mali lose control of key cities; remaining extremists hunted down, beaten in Gao

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GAO, Mali - Residents in Mali's newly liberated city of Gao hunted down and beat suspected Islamist extremists who had not fled with their brothers-in-arms as Malian and French military forces closed in and retook the town.

Malian troops bundled the men into an army truck Tuesday, their hands bound behind their backs. For the better part of a year, the al-Qaida-linked extremists had banned music, insisted women cover themselves and began carrying out public executions and amputations in the towns of northern Mali that they controlled.

Now the Islamists' control of the cities has slipped, with the provincial capitals of Gao and Timbuktu coming back under government authority in quick succession with the arrival of French and Malian troops. They also may have lost control of a third key city, Kidal.

France, the former colonial ruler, began sending in troops, helicopters and warplanes on Jan. 11 to turn the tide after the armed Islamists began encroaching on the south, toward the capital. French and Malian troops seized Gao during the weekend, welcomed by joyous crowds. They took Timbuktu on Monday. The Islamists gave up both cities and retreated into the desert.

But not all of them left.

Members of a youth militia, the Gao Patrolmen, went house to house hunting down suspected Islamic extremists in Gao. Abdul Karim Samba, spokesman for the group, said men were scouring the town for remnants of the extremist Islamist group known as the Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad, or MUJAO.

"They are the Islamists who have gone into their homes to hide, so we've been rounding them up to hand them to the military," he told The Associated Press. Troops from Chad, one of the African nations sending soldiers to help restore Malian government control over the whole country, patrolled the streets, and French soldiers joined overnight patrols. The city market was slowly returning to normal.

On Tuesday, Tuareg fighters from a secular rebel group said they were now in charge of Kidal, located some 270 kilometres (170 miles) to the northeast.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad — Azawad is the Tuareg's name for their homeland — appears to have taken advantage of the French-led military offensive to assert themselves in Kidal. Phone lines were down there, making it difficult to independently confirm the group's claim. The loss of Kidal would mean the Islamists no longer control any of the northern provincial capitals that they had seized last April.

On its website, the NMLA said it is ready to work with French troops and fight terror organizations. However, it said it would refuse to allow Malian soldiers in Kidal and the other towns under its control in northeastern Mali, following allegations that the troops killed civilians suspected of having links to the Islamists.

Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle said Tuesday he hopes to return home in the next 48 hours from the capital but that the Islamists had destroyed part of the airport's runway before leaving, making it hard for planes to land.

Halle had a message for Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of the extremist group, Ansar Dine, which imposed strict Shariah law in Timbuktu last year and forced thousands to flee in fear.

"In one of the meetings I had with Iyad Ag Ghali, he told me that the whole world knows he is the master of Timbuktu. But today it's me that is the mayor of Timbuktu, and he is on the run like an animal," Halle told AP.

To help battle the Islamists in their desert hideouts, a U.S. military official says the Pentagon is considering setting up a drone base in northwest Africa to increase intelligence collection.

The official says the U.S. signed an agreement Monday that would set the rules for greater American military presence in Mali's neighbour to the east, Niger, which would be the most likely location for any new drone base. The official in Washington spoke on condition of anonymity because no final decision has been made.

African and Western nations on Tuesday pledged more than $450 million to fund an African-led military force to continue the fight against the Islamist extremists in Mali. The promises of money and equipment were made in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa at a conference held by the African Union, which said $960 million is needed to fund the Mali campaign.

The French military operation has so far met little resistance though experts warn it will be harder to hold on to the towns than it was to recapture them from the Islamists.

France's defence minister said the job was not yet done.

"The operations are not finished, and we need to work alongside African troops and Malian troops until they take over," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

___

Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Johannesburg and Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.

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