French president makes victory stop in Mali
Timbuktu crowd cheers Francois Hollande after Islamist radicals defeated in major centres
French President Francois Hollande met Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore and spoke to French troops on Saturday, after landing in Timbuktu, making a triumphant stop, six days after French forces parachuted in to liberate the desert city from the rule of al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Hollande, who was accompanied by France's foreign and defence ministers, also visited Timbuktu's library of ancient manuscripts, a section of which was set on fire by the Islamists when they fled the city ahead of the advancing French troops last week.
Crowds cheered as Hollande passed them and people came out holding French flags.
Women who have been forced to wear all-enveloping veils for the past year donned vibrantly coloured clothes and their finest jewelry. All activities that were considered 'haram' or forbidden, under a strict interpretation of Islam imposed by the occupiers.
"Although the war is clearly not over, they have managed to push the rebels out of the major cities into the desert region, into the lawless border regions as well," said the CBC's David Common, reporting from Mali.
The French launched their military operation to oust the extremists three weeks ago, and have since taken back the three main northern cities ruled by the rebels for about 10 months.
"French forces and Malian forces are still trying to take over Kidal, the last stronghold of the Islamists. Then they decide and assess what happens next in this country," CBC's Laura Lynch said from northern Mali.
"You have accomplished an exceptional mission with the Malian army," Hollande told French soldiers in the courtyard outside the library of ancient manuscripts.
Hollande indicated on Friday 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.
Similarly, on Saturday, when he addressed French soldiers, Hollande said their mission was not over but reiterated that once the operation was finished, the French would leave, "because our African friends will be able to carry on doing the job that we have done until now," he said.
He added that later, an African support mission (MISMA), and the Malians "will be in charge of security in all the Malian territory."
Around 800 French forces took part in the effort to free Timbuktu, including hundreds of paratroopers who parachuted onto nearby dunes.
Women, girls beaten under Islamic law
Radical militants last April had seized the town, once a popular tourist destination and revered centre of Islamic learning.
They began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Sharia, amputating the hand of a suspected thief and whipping women and girls who ventured into public without veils scenes reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
France now has 3,500 troops taking part in the Mali operation, in which they are working with Malian soldiers and preparing the way for an African military contingent to help stabilise the vast country.
The French-led intervention so far has rapidly forced the retreat of militants out of urban centres in Mali's north, which had been under the extremists' control.
Hollande said that another goal of his visit was to push Malian leaders to enter a political dialogue, but he did not elaborate.
Part of the reason the armed extremists were able to grab control of Mali's north was because of a coup last March that threw the once-peaceful country into turmoil.
With files from CBC News