French and Malian soldiers have won control of the desert city of Timbuktu following the retreat of Islamist extremists.

Meanwhile, Tuareg fighters claimed to have taken control of the strategic city of Kidal and other northern towns.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad appears to have taken advantage of a French-led bombing and ground campaign to dislodge al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters.

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The Tuareg movement said it was ready to work with French troops and fight terror groups.

However, it said it would refuse to allow Malian soldiers in Kidal, and the other towns under its control, following allegations the troops killed civilians suspected of having links to the Islamists.

Kidal is the last of the three provincial capitals across the north that had been under the grip of the Islamists since April.

The French military operation began more than two weeks ago and has so far met little resistance, though experts warn it will be harder to hold on to the towns than it was to recapture them from the Islamists.

Photographs released by the French military showed jubilant residents greeting the arrival of troops in the town.

"In the heart of people from northern Mali, it's a relief – freedom finally," said Cheick Sormoye, a Timbuktu resident who fled to Bamako, the country's capital.