DAKAR (Reuters) - Secular Malian Tuareg MNLA rebels said on Monday they were now in control of the northern town of Kidal after Islamist militant fighters abandoned it.
"Now it is us who are in control," Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim, the MNLA's military commander, told Reuters by satellite phone from the northeastern town.
Another MNLA rebel contacted in Kidal by Reuters gave the same account, but there was no immediate independent confirmation.
Kidal, the capital of a remote region that borders with Algeria, had been the last urban stronghold in north Mali occupied by al Qaeda-allied Islamist fighters.
Two other major Islamist rebel-held towns, Gao and Timbuktu, have been recaptured by French and Malian troops in a fast-moving French-led offensive launched more than two weeks ago.
Asked where fighters from the Islamist Ansar Dine group which previously held Kidal were, Ag Najim replied: "They are gone".
On Sunday, Ibrahim Mohamed Ag Assaleh, a leader of the MNLA, whose initial separatist rebellion in the north last year was hijacked by al Qaeda and its local Malian allies, offered help from his group's desert fighters to the French-led offensive against the Islamist groups.
Speaking at Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Assaleh had said the MNLA was preparing to attack the withdrawing al Qaeda-allied Islamist forces and its leaders, whom he said were hiding in the Tidmane and Tigharghar mountains in Kidal region.
He said on Sunday the MNLA would advance on Kidal and other Tuareg towns.
(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher and David Lewis in Dakar, Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)