Malians load a pickup truck with goods and furniture as they arrive after crossing the Niger river at Korioume Port, south of Timbuktu on Sunday. French troops launched airstrikes on Islamic militant training camps and arms depots around Kidal and Tessalit in Mali's far north, defence officials said.

Timbuktu - France said it carried out major air strikes on Sunday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali’s desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a visit by President François Hollande.

An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centres run by Islamist extremists overnight in the Tessalit area, north of Kidal.

Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the town for the first time on Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour, a victory lap that came three weeks into a campaign, so far successful, to oust the Islamists who occupied northern Mali for 10 months.

Hollande called the trip “the most important day of my political life”.

The French-led forces have met little resistance in their campaign to stop al-Qaeda-linked groups from seizing the whole country.

Officials say many Islamists have probably fled to the mountainous terrain around Kidal.

The situation on the ground in Kidal is delicate, with seven French hostages believed to be in the area and the rebels splintered into factions, with the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad extending an olive branch by renouncing “extremism and terrorism”.

The number three leader of the armed Islamist group that controlled Timbuktu, Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), was arrested near the Algerian border by a rival group and taken to Kidal on Sunday.

“Mohamed Moussa Ag Mouhamed… the one who sowed terror, who ordered people’s hands cut off, who supported the strict application of sharia, was arrested by an armed group,” a source said.

The Kidal region borders Algeria, which was reluctantly drawn into the Malian conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace.

In retaliation, Islamist militants attacked an Algerian gas field on January 16, unleashing a hostage crisis that left 37 foreigners dead.

France is eager to hand over the operation to a contingent of about 8 000 African troops without abandoning its former colony to chaos.

The crisis has caused about 377 000 people to flee their homes, including 150 000 who have sought refuge across Mali's borders, according to the United Nations. – Sapa-AFP