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Malian soldiers man a checkpoint on the Gao road outside Sevare, some 620 kilometers (385 miles) north of Mali's capital Bamako, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. French and Malian troops held a strategic bridge and the airport in the northern town of Gao on Sunday as their force also pressed toward Timbuktu, another stronghold of Islamic extremists in northern Mali, officials said.

Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

Faster than expected, a French-led offensive has swept into two key towns in northern Mali, putting Islamist rebels on the run. But as the insurgents melt back into the Sahara wastes, the world is left with the same dilemma as before: how to rebuild a shattered state that remains a haven for terrorists.

It's a challenge that Western donors will confront at a conference on Tuesday, when the African Union pleads for more than $400-million to allow thousands of African troops to remain in Mali for at least a year. But money alone is not enough to put the country back together.

Canada is among the countries that will consider pledging funds to support Africa's military effort. Canada is already contributing a massive military transport plane for a 30-day mission in Mali, and is considering other non-military help.

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By capturing the strategic city of Gao and pushing the rebels out of the fabled town of Timbuktu on the weekend, the French and Malian forces have regained two of the three biggest urban centres in northern Mali with surprising ease.

Thousands of people celebrated in the streets of Gao on Sunday, dancing to music that had been banned under the harsh rule of the Islamist extremists. They cheered the French and Malian troops, greeting them as liberators from radical militias that had ruled with brutal force, compelling women to wear veils and amputating the hands of accused thieves.

Meanwhile, the insurgents were reported to have abandoned Timbuktu after repeated French air strikes, while French and Malian forces took control of its airport and probed into the ancient town, cautious because of the risk of ambush or counterattack.

Of the three main northern towns, only the town of Kidal – much further north – remains in rebel hands.

Yet the battle for the main towns was always destined to be the easiest step in a vastly complex task. The insurgents have spent months preparing a network of caves and tunnels in the desert and mountains. They have dramatically expanded their weaponry and vehicles. And they remain an elusive foe, ready to strike back when Mali is vulnerable again.

France has neither the resources nor the will to remain an occupying power in Mali indefinitely. The task for Africa and the West now is to restore Mali's crumbling military and government structures, filling the vacuum that had allowed the Islamist radicals to thrive for years.

In their rush to fight rebels who had advanced into the heart of Mali this month, France and its allies have neglected key issues. Mali's government is badly divided and still under military influence. Mali's army is ill-disciplined, corrupt, anarchic and poorly equipped. The country remains economically divided, with the north poorer and resentful.

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An ambitious plan to train the Malian army, with European and African trainers, has not yet begun. Overdue elections must be held. Civilian leaders must gain clear authority. And the lawless north must be brought under the government's control for the first time in a decade or more.

The loss of Gao and Timbuktu is a blow to the insurgents, but they remain well financed and well armed, with hundreds of new recruits and conscripts. The Islamists, including groups with links to al-Qaeda, have financed themselves by smuggling drugs and cigarettes through the Sahara and kidnapping foreigners for ransom. Those lucrative revenue streams are still alive, and the Islamists continue to hold at least seven foreign hostages.

Mali's insurgents have also gained new support across North Africa and the Middle East as a result of their high-profile actions, including the dramatic hostage-taking at an Algerian gas field earlier this month that led to dozens of deaths. They are now the beneficiaries of widespread publicity and praise on jihadi websites, analysts say.

At the annual summit of the African Union on Sunday, leaders acknowledged that Africa had been slow to respond to the Mali crisis.

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