Curious onlookers gathered near the river crossing to watch the French departure, which is expected to be phased over five days. Several had long faces, despondent with worry.
"People think that the Islamists have left. But we think they are still here," said fisherman Baba Ali Sampana, who had stopped to watch their departure, standing next to his fishing canoe. "The French military should not leave right now."
Further north in the area of Kidal French Mirage 2000 and Rafale fighter jets had been hammering targets including the Islamic extremists' logistical depots and training camps. Burkhard said fighters flew around 30 sorties during the night of Feb. 2-3, striking 20 targets.
French troops are in control of the Kidal airport, while the city and surroundings are patrolled by some of the 1,800 Chadian troops taking part in the operation.
On Wednesday, France asked the Security Council to consider establishing a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali. France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that he started discussions on the issue during closed council consultations on Mali, but insisted that a U.N. force would deploy only when security conditions permit.
In December, the council resolution had authorized an African-led force known as AFISMA to support Malian authorities in recovering the north — an area the size of Texas — but had set no timeline for military action. The unexpected move by the al-Qaida-linked extremists pushing southward, and France's intervention, are forcing the Security Council to revamp its plan.
Larson reported from Gao, Mali. Associated Press reporter Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.
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