TIMBUKTU, Mali – French President Francois Hollande basked in the cheers and accolades of the thousands of people of this embattled city on Saturday, making a triumphant stop six days after French forces parachuted into Timbuktu to liberate the fabled city from the radical Islamists occupying it.
His arrival comes three weeks after France unilaterally launched a military intervention to stem the advance of the al-Qaida-linked fighters, and since then French troops have succeeded in ousting the rebels from the three main northern cities they occupied, including Timbuktu.
“Alongside the Malians and the Africans, we have liberated this town. Today Timbuktu. Tomorrow Kidal. And others are still to come,” Hollande told the French troops who stood at attention on the tarmac of the city’s airport. They secured the airfield on Monday, after special forces parachuted onto the dunes just north of the city. They were joined by 600 infantrymen, who came in by land in a convoy of armored cars. “You have accomplished an exceptional mission.”
Thousands of people stood elbow-to-elbow behind a perimeter line in downtown Timbuktu, hoisting the homemade French flags they had prepared for Hollande’s arrival. The swatches of red, white and blue fabric were sewn together by hand, and held up by sticks. Others painted the three colors on pieces of paper, and held them aloft as the president’s convoy rolled into the sand-blanketed square.
Women wore vibrantly colored African prints, and bared their midriffs, their arms and their backs, after nearly a year of being forced to wear a colorless, all-enveloping veil. They danced as men played the drums – a loud, raucous celebration after months of privation.
In a sign of how tense the city remains, Hollande arrived with what looked like a private army. Soldiers holding bomb-sniffing dogs and at least a dozen armored personnel carriers patrolled the square in front of the library of ancient manuscripts that Hollande visited during his two-hour stop in the city. Just before French troops arrived in Timbuktu last week, the retreating Islamic extremists set fire to a portion of the collection at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research.
Despite the outpouring of joy, many expressed worry about France’s long-term intentions. Mali’s military has proved to be no match for the better-armed Islamic extremists, who seized a territory equal in size to France last year after the army simply abandoned their posts. Hollande made clear that France intends to hand off the control of the recuperated terrain to Mali’s military, and to the African troops pledged by neighboring countries.
“Now it’s the Malians who have the responsibility to assure the transition, and especially the security, of their country,” he said at the airport. Asked by reporters how soon French troops will begin to draw down from Timbuktu, he said: “The handover is soon enough.”
About 800 French soldiers are still stationed in Timbuktu, out of a total of 3,500 taking part in the operation code-named Serval, after a sub-Saharan wildcat.
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