French forces in Mali have taken control of Kidal airport, seizing a key position in the last remaining urban stronghold of Islamist extremists.
French and Malian troops have recaptured two of the other provincial capitals, Timbuktu and Gao, in recent days.
Once France, with its thousands of troops, planes and helicopters, leaves, Mali's weak army and soldiers from neighbouring countries Islamists might be hard-pressed to retain control if the Islamists attempt a comeback from their desert hideouts.
"Now it's up to African countries to take over," French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said. "We decided to put the means - in men and supplies - to make the mission succeed and hit hard. But the French aspect was never expected to be maintained. We will leave quickly."
Haminy Maiga, the interim president of the Kidal regional assembly, said French forces met no resistance when they arrived.
France, the former colonial ruler, began sending in troops, helicopters and warplanes on January 11 to turn the tide after the armed Islamists began encroaching on the south, toward the capital. French and Malian troops seized Gao during the weekend and took Timbuktu on Monday. The Islamists gave up both cities and retreated into the surrounding desert.
In Gao's main market, women returned to work on without the black veils required by the Islamists. They wore vibrant patterned fabrics and sported makeup.
While most crowds in the freed cities have been joyful, months of resentment toward the Islamists bubbled into violence in Gao.
A mob attacked the symbol of the oppressive regime, the Islamic police headquarters. Some celebrated cheering "I am Malian," while others armed with sticks and machetes attacked suspected members of the Islamist regime.
Gao's mayor and governor met community elders in an attempt to bring a halt to the vigilante attacks.