Troops retake last of Mali rebel strongholds

Soldiers from Chad have occupied a former rebel bastion in northern Mali, completing the reconquest of all the populous areas overrun by Islamist insurgents.

The fall of Kidal ends the first phase of France's four-week intervention. After a lightning air and ground campaign, capturing an area the size of Spain for the loss of one man, Paris must now decide whether to pursue the Islamist fighters into the mountains of north-eastern Mali.

Seven French civilians who have been taken hostage in Mali and neighbouring countries in recent years are believed to be held in the mountains on the Algerian border.

French media have hinted in recent days that special forces are already probing the Ifoghas massif, searching for signs of the rebels and the hostages. French warplanes attacked 25 targets in or near the mountains.

The use of 1,800 troops from Chad to occupy Kidal seems to have been part of a deal with two, secular Tuareg separatist groups who seized the town last week after the Islamist rebels fled. French paratroopers captured the town's airport last Tuesday.

Tuareg leaders warned France that there would be an ethnic blood - bath if the Malian army – largely composed of soldiers from the black south of the country – entered Kidal.