Timbuktu airport has been seized and secured by French and Malian troops. Backed by airpower around 1200 soldiers have now launched an offensive to take the city.
A senior military officer reported they met no resistance at the airport though they uncovered a series of improvised explosive devices. One unnamed member said they were laid by people who knew what they were doing.
“The whole device was set up cleanly, the connections were done correctly, the whole system was ready to work. It was an expert job, it was not the work of amateurs, that’s clear,” he said.
The advance into the ancient city has prompted French President Francois Hollande to tell a news conference on Monday, “we are winning this battle”. His words come with reports Islamists fleeing Timbuktu set fire to homes and thousands of priceless manuscripts.
There are claims from the secular Tuareg rebel commanders they are now in control of the northern town of Kidal after Islamist militant fighters abandoned it.
Kidal is the capital of a remote region which borders Algeria. It was one of the last suburban strongholds of the militants.
Human Rights Watch has raised concerns that members of the Malian military may be settling old scores during their offensive. Images have been released showing dead bodies at the bottom of a well.
African and international leaders will meet on Tuesday in Addis Ababa for a donors conference.
Meanwhile British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said the UK would not be sending combat troops to Mali.