SEVARE, Mali — French forces met no resistance Wednesday in Kidal, the Islamists’ last major town, as the two-week-old mission scored another success in its effort to dislodge the Al Qaeda-linked militants from northern Mali.
The capture of Kidal came just days after French and Malian forces retook two other provincial capitals, Gao and Timbuktu, which also had been under harsh Islamic rule for nearly 10 months.
‘‘Nobody questions France’s rapid deployment but the ability to hold on to the cities and territory is an immense challenge,’’ said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House. ‘‘The Islamist extremists have not been defeated; they have melted into the heat haze of the desert.’’
Many fear the Islamists now will attempt to hide among civilian populations in outlying villages, only to return and attack the weaker African forces once the French are gone. The Islamists are believed to have an elaborate system of hideouts that they have constructed over the last year as momentum for a West African regional military intervention stalled.
The Islamist fighters fired on French forces when they arrived in Gao, though the militants had deserted Timbuktu by the time forces arrived there on Monday, damaging the airport’s runway as they fled.