Hollande makes triumphant Mali visit

Crowds shouted "Vive la France! Vive Francois Hollande!"

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The Independent Online

French President Francois Hollande was greeted as a triumphant hero in Timbuktu today, six days after French forces rid the Malian town of al-Qaida-linked militants.

Mr Hollande used the visit to express hope that his army can soon leave the country in the hands of Malian government forces.

Radical Islamists first captured Timbuktu, as well as Gao and Kidal, in April last year during the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the capital Bamoko.

Hollande launched the military offensive three weeks ago to wrest control of the troubled African country's north from the occupiers.

All other towns and cities have quickly fallen over the past fortnight, with the victory in Timbuktu marking a climax for the intervention.

Hollande indicated yesterday that during his visit to the former French colony, he would discuss the reduction of French troop levels on the ground to make way for an African force, led by Mali. He said his visit aims to encourage "the Africans (to) come join us as quickly as possible and to say that we need this international force."

France has 3,500 troops taking part in the Mali operation, in which they are working with Malian soldiers. Neighbouring African countries, including Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin, have also supplied troops.

Hollande, who was accompanied by France's foreign and defence ministers, visited the town's 700-year-old Djingareyber mosque today.

Crowds shouted "Vive la France! Vive Francois Hollande!" as he passed them.

Moustapha Ben Essayati, one of those who showed up to greet the French delegation, said: "If I could have one wish, it would be that the French army stays in the Sahara, that they create a base here.

"I'm really scared that if they leave, the jihadists will come back. If France had not intervened in Konna, we would no longer be talking about Mali," he said.

People came out holding French flags including some that consisted of no more than a watercolor of France's red, white and blue.

Women who have been forced to wear full-body veils for the past year wore vibrant, colourful clothes and their finest jewellery, that were forbidden under a strict interpretation of Islam imposed by the occupiers.

Movement for Oneness and Jihad, the group which controlled the town, amputated the hand of a suspected thief and whipped women and girls seen in public without veils.

Fatou Toure, 25, said: "It's the president of France who freed us from the prison we have lived in for the past 10 months."

And Ben Essayeti said:"We have just spent 10 months in hell. Everything that demarcates the liberty of man was forbidden to us. We couldn't smoke, we couldn't listen to music, we couldn't wear the clothes we wanted to wear."

Before fleeing Timbuktu, the Islamists burned some of the city’s historic manuscripts, in an apparently bitter parting gesture. The famous trading city and Islamic centre of learning also had several shrines destroyed while it was under their control.

Accompanying Hollande today, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, hopes to assess the situation and help the Malian government with "reconstruction and safeguarding."

She said: “At this moment, we must act quickly to safeguard and rebuild this country’s outstanding cultural heritage – this is essential for national unity and reconciliation.

"This heritage is a source of strength and confidence for the people of Mali as they consolidate the foundations of peace.”