By Adama Diarra
GAO, Mali Jan 28 (Reuters) - French-backed Malian troops searched through Timbuktu for Islamist rebel fighters on Monday after seizing the airport and surrounding the ancient Saharan trading town in a lightning offensive against al Qaeda-allied fighters in northern Mali.
"We are in control of the airport in Timbuktu and forces are in the process of securing the town," Mali's Defence Ministry spokesman Lt. Col Diarran Kone told Reuters.
In a commando operation similar to the one at the weekend that seized Gao, the other large northern Malian town occupied by Islamist insurgents since last year, French special forces backed by warplanes and helicopters swooped on Timbuktu airport to open the way for Malian and other African troops.
France 24 TV, reporting from Timbuktu airport, said about 200 French paratroopers had been dropped north of the UNESCO World Heritage Site city to try to stop any remaining Islamic rebels from fleeing in that direction.
The weekend gains made at Gao and Timbuktu by the French and Malian troops capped a two-week whirlwind intervention by France in its former Sahel colony, which has driven al Qaeda-allied militant fighters northwards into the desert and mountains.
"Little by little, Mali is being liberated," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France 2 television.
The French and Malians have faced no resistance so far at Timbuktu, but Malian government soldiers face a tough job of combing through the city's labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes between alleys to flush out any Islamist fighters who might still be hiding there.
GAO RESIDENTS CELEBRATE
At Gao, more than 300 km (190 miles) east of Timbuktu, thousands of jubilant residents danced to music in the streets to celebrate the liberation of the ancient town on the Niger River from the sharia-observing Islamist rebels.
A third northern town, the Tuareg seat of Kidal, in Mali's rugged and remote northeast, remains in rebel hands.
As the French and Malian troops push into northern Mali, African troops from a U.N.-backed continental intervention force expected to number 7,700 are being flown into the country, despite delays due to logistical problems.
France now has 2,900 armed forces personnel on the ground in Mali. It sent them in with warplanes, helicopters and armoured vehicles after the Malian government appealed to Paris for help when the Islamist rebels launched an offensive south towards the capital Bamako early in January.
In the face of the two-week-old French-Malian counter attack, the rebels have been pulling back north into the trackless desert wastes and mountain fastnesses of the Sahara.
Military experts fear they could carry on a gruelling hit-and-run guerrilla war against the government from there.
Fabius said the Islamist insurgents, members of a loose alliance between al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and Malian and other groups, were going into hiding but could reappear.
"The terrorist groups are carrying out a strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north, primarily in Mali," Fabius warned. He declined to say whether France would intervene again if the militants returned.
The United States and European Union are backing the French-led Mali operation as a strike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launch pad for international attacks.
Thay are helping with intelligence, airlift of troops and logistics, but do not plan to send combat troops to Mali. (Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Sevare, Mali, Alexandria Sage in Paris, and Bate Felix in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher)