French President Francois Hollande arrives in Timbuktu, Mali, six days after French forces parachuted in the town to recapture it from Al-Qaeda linked militants.
Mr Hollande said on Friday that, during the trip, he would discuss the reduction of French troop levels in order 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.”
Mr Hollande said that another goal of his visit was to push Malian leaders to enter a political dialogue, but he did not elaborate.
Mr Hollande was welcomed off his plane by military personnel, dancers, a banner proclaiming “Merci la France” and a rather vocal camel (see video, below). He was taken first, accomponied by France’s foreign and defence ministers, to the Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu.
Crowds shouted “Vive la France! Vive Francois Hollande!” as he passed them.
“If I could have one wish, it would be that the French army stays in the Sahara, that they create a base here,” said Moustapha Ben Essayati, one of those who showed up to greet the French delegation.
Channel 4 News entered the town of Gao with French troops: see their pictures 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.
“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.”
Around 800 French forces took part in the effort to free Timbuktu, including hundreds of paratroopers who parachuted onto nearby dunes. Radical militants last April had seized the town, once a popular tourist destination and revered center of Islamic learning.
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They began implementing a strict form of shariah law, including amputating the hands of a suspected thieves and whipping women and girls who ventured into public without veils.
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 stabilize the vast country.