Hollande praises French troops on Timbuktu visit
French President François Hollande thanked French and Malian troops from Timbuktu on Saturday, three weeks after they began fighting a campaign against Islamists in the country’s north.
President François Hollande landed in the fabled Malian town of Timbuktu on Saturday, as French-led troops worked to secure the last Islamist stronghold in the north after a lightning offensive against the extremists.
Hollande, whose surprise decision to intervene in Mali three weeks ago has won broad support at home, thanked French and Malian troops who have pushed back the radicals from the north of Paris's former colony and urged their speedy replacement by African forces.
“I want to express our admiration and great satisfaction,” he said of the operation. “I also want to thank the Malian people for an outstanding welcome,” he added, describing the cries of joy he had heard from Bamako to Timbuktu.
“The enthusiasm we witnessed last week upon entering Timbuktu has been multiplied tenfold with Hollande’s visit,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Matthieu Mabin reported from the city.
FRANCE 24’s Philomène Remy said the Malian people have begun referring to Hollande as “Uncle François, because to them he is now part of their big family”.
'War is not over'
In his speech from Timbuktu, Hollande also said that “the war is not over” and pledged France’s support to the country in maintaining security.
Hollande visited the 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba library, where Islamists burned priceless ancient manuscripts before fleeing. “Our aim is to liberate [the city], give the people access to these precious manuscripts, and allow Timbuktu to shine once again,” he said outside the mosque.
At Friday prayers, the mosque’s imam called for tolerance. “The imam was at pains to stress the Islam of Mali is not that put forward by the insurgents; that it is an open, tolerant Islam,” Mabin reported.
France is keen to hand over its military operation to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed in the country, which the United Nations is considering turning into a formal UN peacekeeping operation.
But there are mounting warnings that Mali will need long-term help to address the crisis and fears that the Islamists, who have retreated in the face of French troops, will now wage a guerrilla campaign.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday that French forces had rolled back the Islamist militants "much faster" than the United States had expected, but now face the daunting task of building long-term security in the region.
"They have made tremendous progress, I give them a lot of credit," Panetta told AFP in an interview at the Pentagon. "But the challenge now is to make sure that you can maintain that security and that you are not overstretched and that, ultimately, as you begin to pull back, that the other African nations are prepared to move in and fill the gap of providing security."
FRANCE 24 correspondent Eve Irvine said that in Bamako, Toureg families who fled the violence in Timbuktu were concerned that once international and French troops left, the extremists would return. “They want to underline to Hollande that the Islamists have not just disappeared into thin air,” she said.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)