Egyptian army questions Mohamed Morsi over alleged Hamas terror links

News of overthrown president’s alleged help in 2011 attacks comes as showdown looms between Muslim Brotherhood and opponents

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for aiding Hamas attacks on Egyptian security facilities during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since the Islamist was forced from office and detained incommunicado by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

The news came as Egypt held its breath for a showdown on Friday between supporters of the army and Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Millions are expected to fill Egypt’s streets on Friday in support of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of Egyptian media has spent the last month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels have suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to back Sisi.

With Sisi enjoying widespread popularity, millions are likely to heed his call on Friday by turning out across Egypt – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – to show their backing for his actions. But their demonstrations also coincide with 35 marches across the capital planned by the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the possibility of serious factional fighting. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, heightened tensions further on Thursday by claiming that Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi – following days of mass protests – was a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

According to state media, Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. It is alleged that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures were rescued from jail during the revolution with help from Hamas, and then helped the Palestinians attack Egyptian police facilities during Mubarak’s removal. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals – and that Hamas had no role in the 2011 uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, reacting to the news. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 2011 revolution through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return of Mubarak-era officials and institutions sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to focus their investigations against Morsi on allegations from before his presidency began, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that they may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police, who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under his tenure.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his rule. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June. Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a rally outside a military compound in east Cairo.

In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is seen as an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. Brotherhood leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation of the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi.

Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core albeit perhaps delusional demand – would also cost them significant credibility among supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam.

“They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Mali election: thousands of displaced people face exclusion from vote

Majority of Malians who fled war in the north fail to receive voters’ cards, leaving them without a voice in Sunday’s polls

The vast majority of the half a million people who have fled the war in northern Mali will be excluded from voting in Sunday’s presidential election.

The polls are being held to replace a transitional regime so that up to $4bn ( 2.6bn) in international aid can be released to an accountable and representative government.

Large portions of the northern population will, however, have no voice in the process, even though they bore the brunt when separatist and Islamist rebels swept across Mali, and France intervened militarily this year.

According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, fewer than 300 voters’ cards have been distributed among the 173,000 Malians living in camps in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Algeria. Least well-served, according to the agency, are 50,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, where only 38 voters’ cards have arrived.

“The number of voters’ cards delivered is meaningless, given that 20,000 refugees claimed to have registered and 11,000 of them were identified in the electoral database,” UNHCR’s acting head in Mali, S bastien Apatita, said. “A great number of the estimated 353,000 Malians who are displaced within the country are facing the same problem because their voters’ cards have been delivered to the localities where they registered in 2009 or 2010.”

Apatita said he had put the UNHCR’s concerns to Colonel Moussa Coulibaly Sinko, the minister for territorial administration, who is organising the election. “We know that both refugees and internally displaced people are eager to take part. I went to the minister looking to discuss some solutions. But the issue is highly sensitive and the minister quoted the electoral law, which says no one can vote without a voter’s card. The minister said he would release more teams into the field to try to locate missing cards. But in the time left, all we can hope for is a miracle,” he said.

The ministry spokesman, Gamer Dicko, said 82% of Mali’s 6.8 million voters’ cards – known by the acronym Nina (num ro d’identit nationale) – had been collected since distribution began three weeks ago. He said the ministry would set up polling stations in refugee camps and it had done all it could to encourage displaced people to apply to transfer to polling stations in the areas where they currently live.

“We used television and radio advertisements and even traditional methods like griottes to encourage the displaced people. When a figure is given of 300,000 refugees, it includes children, who cannot vote, and people who may be 18 but who do not want to vote,” Dicko said.

But interviews with displaced people and aid workers supporting them suggest there is enormous interest in the presidential election, which may go to a second round on 11 August if there is no outright winner on Sunday.

The elections have been presented to Malians as a way of starting afresh after 20 years of misrule and corruption, which has left the vast expanses of the north of Mali underdeveloped and prey to illicit trades, including smuggling and hostage-taking.

Mali has an estimated population of 16 million, and is among the world’s five poorest countries, ranking 182 of 186 countries in the UN human development index. Children spend an average of two years in school and illiteracy among women has risen to 90%. Northern regions have been the scene of successive rebellions by the Tuareg people. Tuaregs and other northerners comprise a large proportion of those who will not be able to cast votes.

Guitarist Nasser Maiga, 25, has been living with relatives in Bamako since March last year, when he fled Gao after hearing that Islamist guerillas were carrying out house-to-house searches to punish musicians whose output they considered anti-Muslim. He said: “This election ought to be important for us, but I will not be able to vote. It is a big disappointment.”

His friend, Songhai musician Mdas, from Timbuktu, said he would be able to vote. “The government gave us a month to transfer our paperwork, and with various certified documents I managed to get my Nina card transferred to Bamako. But it was a complicated process and it did not work for everyone,” Mdas said.

Fadou Tour , a housewife from Goundam, near Timbuktu, has been living in a cousin’s garden in Bamako since April last year. “My sister is up there so I asked her to get my card in the hopes she could send it to me. She went last Sunday but they could not find it. Everyone in Bamako seems to be planning to vote so I am very disappointed.

Several aid workers confirmed the lack of voters’ cards among displaced people. One, in S gou, south-central Mali, said: “The displaced people have gone to great lengths to get their cards. Those who have the funds have sent a family member to their place of origin to collect everyone’s cards and bring them back. But travel is expensive. Buying food is the displaced people’s priority. I would say only about 15% of the displaced people I know have their cards now.”

A UN diplomat who wished to remain anonymous said the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people from the north risked dividing Mali politically. “The fact that displaced people and refugees will not be able to vote will play into the hands of separatists who do not recognise the Malian state. In the worst-case scenario, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad will be able to claim that a low voting rate in the north is proof that the region does not recognise the Malian state.”

Morsi being investigated over claims of ‘colluding with Hamas’ in uprising

Deposed president alleged to have helped Palestinian Islamists murder Egyptian police during 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for conspiring with Hamas during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since he was forced from office and detained by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

After the announcement, Morsi was moved from a secret military facility to Cairo’s Tora prison, where his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, is also being held.

The news heightened tensions on a day when supporters of Egypt’s two main factions formed rival mass protests across the country in what was billed as a showdown between people backing the army and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. By the evening, nine people had been killed, most in Alexandria, and at least 200 injured in clashes in five cities, according to the MENA state news agency.

Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The charges allege that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brothers were rescued from jail during the revolution with Hamas’s assistance, and then helped Hamas to attack Egyptian police facilities and murder policemen during the ousting of Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals and that Hamas had no role in the uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 25 January revolution [the 2011 uprising] through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return to influence of Mubarak-era officials and institutions who were sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The police – a target of the 2011 uprising – have seen their popularity rise again following the anti-Morsi protests on 30 June, and they have been quick to capitalise. On Friday, police gave Egyptian flags to pro-army protesters in a show of unity.

The decision by the new government to focus first on allegations relating to events before Morsi’s presidency, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that it may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police – who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under Morsi.

Resurgent support for the police, who publicly backed Morsi’s removal, was apparent among pro-army protesters, even from the most unlikely sources.

“The interior ministry [who run the police] have been purified of the blood of the past,” said 66-year-old Magdy Iskandar Assad, whose son was killed by police officers during protests following Mubarak’s fall. “There’s a reconciliation now between the people and institutions like state security.”

Assad was one of hundreds of thousands demonstrating in support of the army chief, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of the Egyptian media has spent the past month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to go out to support Sisi, and thousands heeded the call – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the atmosphere was of a military pageant.

Many wore photographs of Sisi around their neck. Military helicopters flew overhead to loud cheers from the crowd. Smiling protesters had their pictures taken with the soldiers who were securing the entrances to the square, some of them sitting on large armoured personnel carriers.

“My message to General Sisi is: what you did on 30 June was greater than what Egypt did in the 1973 war [against Israel],” said Walid Hedra, 38, a one-time Islamist who grew disillusioned with Morsi after he used dictatorial powers to force through a controversial new constitution last November.

“The armed forces are reborn again thanks to Sisi, the successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Assad, referring to Egypt’s much-loved dictator during the 50s and 60s. “Sisi is a courageous man who is working for the good of the country.”

Egypt’s pro-Sisi demonstrations also coincided with counter-demonstrations by Morsi’s supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood organised 35 marches across the capital, raising fears of serious factional fighting after nightfall. By the evening, 37 had already been injured in clashes in northern Cairo – but clashes were fiercest in Alexandria, where the health ministry reported at least 100 injured.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, had earlier stoked tensions by calling Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

Many marching in Morsi’s name were afraid of what Sisi’s campaign against terrorism might entail. “It doesn’t make sense for a defence minister to ask people to give him authority to fight terrorism,” said Abdallah Hatem, a 19-year-old student from Cairo. “So his speech was a pretext for something else – a pretext to fight peaceful protesters who want Morsi to come back.”

“None of us here are terrorists,” added Mohamed Mostafa, a street vendor from southern Egypt, struggling nearby under the weight of a Morsi banner. “You can see that for yourself.”

But not everyone on the streets accepted the binary choice of the army or the Brotherhood. A small group of Egyptians, calling themselves the Third Square, gathered in a square in west Cairo to object to the authoritarianism of both groups.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his tenure. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi’s supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June.

Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a protest outside a military compound in east Cairo. In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is considered an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. But the movement’s leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation in the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi. Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core and delusional demand – would also see them lose significant credibility among their supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam. “They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

Asked whether he would accept anything less that Morsi’s reinstatement, 19-year-old Morsi-backer Abdallah Hatem said: “It’s impossible.”

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad

Kenyan voters frustrated with delayed results after electronic system fails

Kenyan presidential frontrunner Uhuru Kenyatta stokes conspiracy theories by accusing UK of meddling in election

Election officials across Kenya transported their local election results to be tallied in the capital on Wednesday after the electronic vote-counting system broke down, while the coalition of a top presidential candidate accused Britain’s high commissioner of meddling.

Kenyans were growing increasingly frustrated that the announcements of public vote tallies ceased around 48 hours after polls closed. The breakdown of the electronic vote system has meant less than half of the preliminary results have been released. Officials, working to ensure violence does not break out in this election, are calling for patience.

Kevin Muriunge, a 25-year-old student, said: “The delay is giving rise to conspiracy theories. People are panicking about the delay in the results of the elections. But unlike the last election, there is a level of restraint.”

Referring to long voting lines during Monday’s vote, Alojz Peterle, a former president of Slovenia and head of the European Union observer mission, said Kenyans had shown they were capable of great patience. “But even more patience is called for now,” he said.

The election commission chairman announced late on Tuesday that hundreds of thousands of ballots that were rejected for not following the rules would be counted in the overall vote total. That makes it very difficult, given the tight race, for either top candidate to reach the 50% mark needed to win outright.

The coalition of the deputy prime minster, Uhuru Kenyatta, who faces charges at the international criminal court (ICC) and is the son of Kenya’s founding president, accused the British high commissioner of “shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement” in efforts to get the election commission to decide that rejected ballots should still be counted in the overall vote total.

Kenyatta’s party also asked the high commissioner, Christian Turner, to explain what it called “the sudden upsurge of British military personnel” in Kenya. British troops attend a six-week training course near Mount Kenya before being deployed to Afghanistan. A new battle group arrived the week before Kenyans voted.

Britain’s Foreign Office said claims of British interference were “entirely false and misleading”. The British soldiers in Kenya were part of a regular training programme planned nine months ago “completely unrelated to the Kenyan elections”. It said Britain has no position on the rejected votes, saying that the election commission or the courts should decide.

“We have always said that this election is a choice for Kenyans alone to decide,” the Foreign Office said, adding: “We urge all sides to ensure calm, avoid inflammatory statements, and to take any disputes to the courts.”

Kenyans held their first presidential vote on Monday since the nation’s disputed election in 2007 spawned violence that killed more than 1,000 people. Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Kenyatta are the top two contenders.

Election observers from around the world said on Wednesdayyesterday that Kenya carried out a credible election, but the groups reserved final judgments until the election process is completed. Some observers said it appeared a runoff between Odinga and Kenyatta was likely.

The partial preliminary results on Tuesday had shown an early lead for Kenyatta. Odinga’s camp told supporters that the votes from his strongholds had not yet all been tallied.

The statement from Kenyatta’s coalition on Wednesday implied that the British envoy had pressured the commission to make the decision on the spoiled ballots, thus ensuring a runoff.

John Stremlau, an election observer with the Carter Center, the body run by former US President Jimmy Carter, said that it might be better for Kenyatta’s coalition to use “foreign powers” as a whipping post than attacking Kenyans.

“It does seem to me to be a mindset of the old colonial era that the foreign powers would be dictating to the [election commission] in any way,” Stremlau said, adding later: “There are going to be accusations in every election … and they must be backed by evidence. Show the proof and let the judges decide and we’ll all be better off.”

Franklin Bett, an official in Odinga’s party, echoed that statement. “Talk is easy. Let them come with the evidence,” he said.

William Ruto, Kenyatta’s running mate, had also blamed “foreign missions” on Tuesday for swaying the electoral commission on its ballot decision. The decision “is meant to deny us a first-round win”, Ruto was quoted as saying.

Kenya is the lynchpin of east Africa’s economy and plays a vital security role in the fight against Somali militants. The US embassy in Kenya is the largest in Africa, indicating the country’s importance to American foreign policy.

The US has warned of “consequences” if Kenyatta is to win, as have several European countries. Because Kenyatta is an ICC indictee, the US and Europe have said they might have to limit contact with him, even if he is president.

Aisha Abdullahi, the African Union commissioner for political affairs, said it was good that Kenyan officials had planned for a backup system – the physical tallies of votes – given the breakdown in the electronic transmission system. He blamed the breakdown on a failure of central computer servers.

“Yes, we in Africa are trying to catch up with you guys with electronic things. We are not yet as proficient as western Europe or North America,” said Festus Mogae in response to a question from a European reporter. Mogae is a former president of Botswana and head of the Commonwealth observer mission.

“That it’s failed is no surprise to me. It often does in our countries.”

Woman charged with insulting Somali state institutions after rape claim

Woman who said she was raped by government forces, and a journalist who interviewed her, to appear in Mogadishu court

A Somali woman who said she was raped by government forces, and a journalist who interviewed her are due in court in Mogadishu on Tuesday, accused of insulting state institutions in a case that has raised concerns about women’s rights and press freedom in the fragile state.

The international outcry surrounding the case is an embarrassment for the Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whose election last year was described by the international community as the start of a new era for Somalia after decades of instability and conflict.

The trial started as Mohamud toured Europe to garner international support to rebuild Somalia. He was in Britain on Monday where he met the international development secretary, Justine Greening.

Human rights groups have described the trial, which was adjourned on Saturday at the attorney general’s request, as politically motivated while the US state department’s spokeswoman said it was “a litmus test” for the future of Somalia.

Freelance journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim and the 27-year-old woman have been charged with insulting a government body and providing false evidence. The woman’s husband and two other people have also been charged, and the defendants could face lengthy jail terms if found guilty.

The woman was arrested on 10 January, two days after she was interviewed by Abdinur Ibrahim and told him she had been raped by government forces last year.

She was interrogated over two days without legal counsel and released after police said she retracted her story. Her husband was detained on 12 January and is still in custody, rights groups said.

Abdinur Ibrahim, who was also arrested on 10 January, is still being held.

The Somali police also alleged he was involved in an Al Jazeera report on rape in camps for displaced people in Mogadishu. The news agency dismissed the police claim, and Abdinur Ibrahim did not file his interview to any outlet, rights groups said.

“Bringing charges against a woman who alleges rape makes a mockery of the new Somali government’s priorities,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“The police ‘investigation’ in this case was a politically motivated attempt to blame and silence those who report on the pervasive problem of sexual violence by Somali security forces,” he said.

The international community, especially Britain and the United States, have enthusiastically backed Somalia’s new government, which emerged last September after a UN-backed peace process to replace a corrupt and inefficient transitional authority.

“The donor countries funding Somalia’s police force and criminal justice system need to make clear to the government that they won’t be party to injustices,” Bekele said.

David Cameron is due to co-host an international conference on Somalia with Mohamud in Britain in May to provide support for the new government’s efforts to rebuild its country.

After the Somali president met Greening in London on Monday, it was announced that Britain would support Somali parliamentarians as they establish their new government and federal parliament.

“It’s vital that we make the most of the close links between our two countries as Somalia rebuilds its democracy,” Greening said after the meeting. “After last September’s elections, the most representative process in decades, Somalia now has a real chance to make progress towards stability and peace after 21 years of conflict.”

The Somali government does seem to be taking the criticism over the trial on board.

On Sunday, the rime minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid, said authorities would do more to protect rape victims, and he promised to reform the armed forces and judiciary once the trial had concluded.

“We recognise the concerns of our international partners and we are only too aware of the enormous challenges our nation faces,” he said in a statement.

Somalia has been enjoying a period of relative stability since African Union forces pushed the Islamic militants of al-Shabaab out of most of their urban strongholds, including the capital. The rebels still control some rural areas and carry out sporadic bomb attacks in Mogadishu

Blair: fight against al-Qaida could last a generation

Former PM likens battle to struggle against revolutionary communism and warns that cost of standing aside would be far greater

The west’s fight against al-Qaida is like the battle against revolutionary communism, says Tony Blair, who warns that it could last for a generation.

The former prime minister said on Sunday that Britain was right to send troops to support the French effort in Mali to put down a terrorist attempt to overthrow the country’s government.

David Cameron faced difficult decisions to fight terrorism, Blair said, but warned the cost of standing aside would be far greater.

Britain at least had to try and “shape” events in the Middle East, he added, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that in Syria there was already a danger the more extreme elements of the opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would take over.

Blair said: “I think we should acknowledge how difficult these decisions are.

“Sometimes in politics you come across a decision which the choice is very binary, you go this way or that way and whichever way you go the choice is very messy.

“If we engage with this, not just militarily but over a long period of time, in trying to help these countries, it is going to be very, very hard but I think personally the choice of disengaging is going to be even greater.”

He added: “We always want in the west, quite naturally, to go in and go out, and think there is a clean result. It’s not going to happen like that. We now know that. It is going to be long and difficult and messy.

“My point is very simple though: if you don’t intervene and let it happen, it is also going to be long, difficult and messy, and possibly a lot worse. It’s a very difficult decision.

“We are certainly talking about a generation. I think a better way to look at it is like the fight the west had over a long period of time with revolutionary communism.

“It will happen in many different theatres, it will happen in many different ways but the truth is that you have no option but to confront it, to try over time to defeat it.”

Mali conflict: French troops retake Kidal airport without resistance

France’s foreign minister promises troops will depart quickly after retaking last major city controlled by Islamist militia

French forces have taken control of the airport in the Malian town of Kidal, the last remaining urban stronghold of Islamists in the north, as France’s foreign minister vowed troops would depart from Mali “quickly”.

Kidal, 1,500km from the capital Bamako and towards the Algerian border, would be the last of northern Mali’s major towns to be retaken by French-led forces after they reached Gao and Timbuktu earlier this week in a campaign to drive out al-Qaida-linked Islamists.

The military operation in Kidal itself was “ongoing” on Wednesday, according to French armed forces spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard in Paris. The airport was secured on Tuesday night by French troops.

“They arrived late last night and they deployed in four planes and some helicopters,” said Haminy Belco Maiga, president of the regional assembly of Kidal.

“Afterwards they took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat,” said Maiga, who had been in touch with people in the town by satellite phone as all the normal telephone networks were down. “The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead.” Kidal is the capital of the desert region of the same name, to which Islamist fighters are believed to have retreated during nearly three weeks of French airstrikes and an advance by hundreds of ground troops.

Tuareg rebels of the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), who want greater autonomy for the desert north, said this week that they had taken control of Kidal after Islamists abandoned the town.

The MNLA, which fought alongside the Islamists before being sidelined by them in mid-2012, was not immediately available for comment on the French deployment.

Earlier this week, after French and Malian troops secured Timbuktu, French president Fran ois Hollande said: “We’re winning this battle, and when I say ‘we’, I mean the Malian army, the Africans backed by the French.”

France, which has 3,500 troops on the ground, as well as fighter planes and helicopters in the country, is cautious about declaring victory, knowing that Islamists who have retreated to desert hideouts could stage comebacks that would be difficult to contain for Mali’s weak army. But France has insisted on the rapid implementation of a European training programme for the Malian army as well as the deployment of a joint African force which will eventually assume control of operations.

“Now it’s up to African countries to take over,” France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told Le Parisien on Wednesday. “We decided to put the means in – men and supplies – to make the mission succeed and hit hard. But the French aspect was never expected to be maintained. We will leave quickly.”