Malian soldiers stand on the back of a pickup truck. Photo: AP

Bamako - Islamist militants have begun to pull out of the historic city of Timbuktu as French and Malian troops press on with their offensive to clear the rebels out of Mali's north, local media reported on Sunday.

The news came as French troops began air attacks on the strategic city of Kidal a day after the offensive pushed the rebels out of Gao.

The attack upon Timbuktu has been in planning for more than a week by French and Malian government forces.

“We don't want to lose a minute in taking back the occupied areas,” Malian army spokesman Diarran Kone said by telephone, adding that his troops had been responsible for significant successes as they advance northwards.

Mali has been led by an interim government since a military coup in March. Tuareg nationalists took advantage of the diversion caused by the coup to chase the army out of the north but the nationalists were soon sidelined by the Islamic fundamentalists. - Sapa-dpa