French forces say they have entered the northern Malian town of Kidal after taking over the airport.
There are no signs of Islamists and two different groups say they are talking with the French.
Kidal is the last urban bastion that had been in Islamist hands. The Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), a breakaway group from the Islamist Ansar Dine movement, says it rejects terrorism and claims to hold the town with Tuareg rebels.
The secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which backs the rights of Mali’s Tuareg minority, also claims to have held talks with the French.
Both groups do not want to see Malian troops in Kidal, fearing reprisals against Arab and Tuareg communities.
The Islamist militants are thought to have taken refuge in the northern mountains.
In Timbuktu, recently liberated by French and Malian forces, most precious Islamic manuscripts that had been feared destroyed are now thought to have been saved. They were reportedly hidden from Islamists before their arrival, or had been taken to the capital Bamako.
People in Timbuktu have been making their most of their new re-found freedom after suffering Islamist repression, some singing and dancing in the streets.
“Normal life can begin again, life as we knew it before, with art and our traditional music,” smiled one woman.
A man walzed as he sang a song he said he had written as a tribute to French President François Hollande.
The Islamists not only banned music, they also destoyed telecommunications equipment, supposedly because people could hear music on their mobiles.
But although shops are open and are again freely selling phones and other goods, tensions remain.
On Tuesday in Timbuktu hundreds of people, described as visibly poor, attacked stores whose owners they accused of being “Arabs”, “Algerians” or “Mauritanians” who had supported the Islamists.