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Mali secures recaptured towns

Donors pledge funds as Mali troops recapture abandoned arms and explosives of Islamist fighters.

Malian refugee boys hold buckets of water in the refugee camp of M'bere near Bassikno, south east of Mauritania. Picture: AFP

DOUENTZA/GAO - French-backed Malian troops searched house-to-house in Gao and Timbuktu on Tuesday, uncovering arms and explosives abandoned by Islamist fighters, and France said it aimed to hand over longer-term security operations in Mali to an African force.

An 18-day offensive in France's former West African colony has pushed the militants out of major towns and into desert and mountain hideouts to head off the risk of Mali being used as a springboard for jihadist attacks in the wider region or Europe.

French and Malian troops retook the two Saharan trading towns of Timbuktu and Gao at the weekend virtually unopposed.

Doubts remain about just how quickly the African intervention force, known as AFISMA and now expected to exceed 8,000 troops, could be fully deployed in Mali to hunt down and eradicate retreating al Qaeda-allied insurgents in the north.

International donors meeting in Addis Ababa pledged just over $455 million for the Mali crisis. But it was not clear whether all of this would go directly to AFISMA, which African leaders have estimated, will cost almost $1 billion.

"You will certainly understand that it is not sufficient. But I think it is only the beginning. We hope that it will continue, and that the money we need will come," Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore told reporters in Addis Ababa.

He earlier announced his government would aim to organize "credible" elections for July 31 in response to demands from major Western backers of the anti-rebel action.

Malian soldiers combed through the dusty alleys and mud-brick homes of Gao and Timbuktu. In Gao, they arrested at least five suspected rebels and sympathizers, turned over by local people, and uncovered caches of weapons and counterfeit money.

Fleeing Islamist fighters torched a Timbuktu library holding priceless ancient manuscripts, damaging many.

Residents reported some looting of shops in Timbuktu owned by Arabs and Tuaregs suspected of having helped the Islamists who had occupied the world-famous seat of Islamic learning, a UNESCO World Heritage site, since last year.

Malian troops have also been accused by international human rights groups of carrying out revenge killings of suspected Islamist rebels and sympathizers in retaken areas.

In the face of reports of such reprisals, France called on Tuesday for the swift deployment of international observers in Mali to ensure human rights are not abused.