Jubilant crowds welcome Hollande to Timbuktu

People gather to greet French president François Hollande during his visit to Timbuktu. photograph: benoit tessier/reuters

People gather to greet French president François Hollande during his visit to Timbuktu. photograph: benoit tessier/reuters

Mon, Feb 4, 2013, 00:00

French jets struck more targets in northern Mali yesterday after President François Hollande told cheering Malian crowds he would finish the job of restoring government control across the country.

On a one-day visit to Mali with his ministers for foreign affairs and defence, Mr Hollande was greeted as a liberator by jubilant crowds in the northern town of Timbuktu, which French and Malian forces retook from Islamist rebels last week.

He also received a rapturous welcome in the capital, Bamako, where he said France’s decision to intervene against the rebels was partly out of duty to a country which had sent its men to fight for France in the second World War.

Mobbed by crowds chanting “Vive la France” and waving French tricolours, Mr Hollande described his visit to Mali as “the most important day in my political career”. His foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was shown on French television pushing away tears as he toured Timbuktu surrounded by heavy security.

Although the insurgents have been driven from Mali’s main northern towns, Mr Hollande cautioned that the task of France’s military operation in Mali was not yet over.

“There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered . . .

“There are terrorist elements concentrated in some areas of the country, others who are dispersed. There are risks of terrorism. So, we have not yet finished our mission,” he said.

Restored sovereignty

Mr Hollande said France would withdraw its troops from Mali once the government in Bamako had restored sovereignty over all its national territory and a UN-backed African military force could take over from the French.

“We do not foresee staying indefinitely,” he said, although he spelled out no specific time frame for the French mission.

Drawn mostly from Mali’s neighbours, the African force is expected to number more than 8,000. But its deployment has been hampered by shortages of kit and airlift capacity and questions about who will fund the estimated $1 billion cost.

Within hours of Mr Hollande’s departure on Saturday evening, the French military said it had carried out “significant” air raids targeting logistics bases and training camps used by rebels to the north of the desert town of Kidal.

A military spokesman said the bombings took place around the settlement of Tessalit, close to the Algerian border, one of the main gateways into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains where the militants are believed to be hiding after fleeing major towns. These bombings continued yesterday, the military said.

Attack helicopters

French attack helicopters and transport planes carrying special forces were reported to have left the city of Gao to reinforce the French and Chadian troops stationed at the airport in Kidal.

The town of Kidal itself is under the control of the pro-autonomy MNLA Tuareg rebel group, which occupied it after Ansar Dine fighters fled six days ago.

Malian foreign minister Tieman Coulibaly welcomed the success of France’s military operation but urged the former colonial power not to consider scaling back its mission.

“Faced with hardened fighters whose arsenals must be destroyed, we want this mission to continue. Especially as the aerial dimension is very important,” he told the Journal du Dimanche.

Paris has pressed Bamako to open negotiations with the MNLA, whose uprising last year triggered a military coup in Bamako in March, as a step toward political reunification of north and south Mali.

Mr Coulibaly played down the possibility of direct talks with the MNLA but said it was clear that there needed to be a greater devolution of power from the mainly black African south to northern Mali, an underdeveloped region home to many Tuaregs and Arabs.