French air strikes continued targeting the fuel depots and desert hideouts of Islamist fighters in overnight raids in northern Mali today.
But a military spokeswoman insisted that French forces plan to hand control of Timbuktu to the Malian army on Thursday.
After taking control of the key cities of northern Mali, the French military intervention is turning away from the cities and targeting the fighters' remote desert outposts.
France said it intends to move out of Timbuktu in order to push farther north-east to the strategic city of Gao.
French troops in armoured personnel carriers were still patrolling Timbuktu today.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that air strikes peppered the Kidal region, near the border with Algeria, for the second night in a row.
The rebels "cannot stay there a long time unless they have ways to get new supplies," he said.
But it is far from clear that the African forces - much less the weak Malian army - are ready for the withdrawal of the thousands of French troops, fighter planes and helicopters.
And in northern Mali, the price of food and fuel is rocketing as a result of the conflict, setting the scene for a potential humanitarian crisis, aid organisation Oxfam warned today.
Many market traders of Arab or Tuareg descent fled when French troops advanced last week and have not returned for fear of reprisals.
Oxfam Mali director Philippe Conraud said: "This phase of the war may almost be over, but the battle to build peace and stability has only just begun.
"If people feel that their lives are at risk and that their families are not safe, they will not return to Mali. It's as simple as that."
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