Published: 02 Feb 2013 10:20 GMT+01:00 | Print version
Updated: 02 Feb 2013 10:20 GMT+01:00
President Francois Hollande arrived in Mali 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, was to thank French troops who have pushed back the radicals from the north of Paris's former colony and to push for their speedy replacement by African forces.
"I am going to Mali to express to our soldiers all our support, encouragement and pride," he said a day before his visit. "I'm also going to ensure that African forces come and join us as quickly as possible and to tell them we need them for this international force."
Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore met Hollande as he flew in to the central town of Savare accompanied by his foreign, defence and development ministers.
The two men were to hold a working lunch later in the day in the capital Bamako and Hollande was also due to visit troops in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.
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."
In Timbuktu, Hollande is due to meet with troops and visit the 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba library, where Islamists burned priceless ancient manuscripts before fleeing.
The trip comes as troops are poised to secure the sandy northeastern outpost of Kidal, the rebels' last bastion.
A first contingent of Chadian troops has now entered the town, a Malian security source said, and French soldiers are stationed at the airport, which they captured Wednesday.
The French-led campaign, provoked by a southward rebel advance that sparked fears the entire country could become a haven for Al-Qaeda-linked radicals, has claimed a rapid succession of victories in key Islamist strongholds.
But the joy of citizens throwing off the yoke of brutal Islamist rule, under which they were denied music and television and threatened with whippings, amputations and execution, has been accompanied by a grim backlash against light-skinned citizens seen as supporters of the Al Qaeda-linked radicals.
Rights groups have reported summary executions by both the Malian army and the Islamists, who capitalised on the chaos unleashed by a March coup to seize an area the size of Texas.
Human Rights Watch said Islamists were implicated in the execution of at least seven Malian soldiers, slitting their throats or shooting them in the
It also said Malian troops had shot at least 13 suspected Islamist supporters in Savare and dumped them into wells, a report corroborated by other rights groups.
The Malian army has denied any crimes by its forces.
A proposal to introduce more courses in English and other foreign languages at French universities is set to be debated in parliament from Wednesday amid concerns it will undermine the country's soul and identity. READ () »
A 48-year-old divorced Briton locked in a bitter custody battle confessed on Sunday that he had killed his two young children by slitting their throats near the eastern French city of Lyon. READ () »
As Carlo Ancelotti paid fulsome tribute to the retiring David Beckham the Paris Saint Germain manager revealed an announcement on his own future may be imminent. READ () »
France's disgraced former budget minister, forced out of office over a tax fraud scandal, will not seek re-election to his former parliamentary seat, a newspaper reported Sunday. READ () »
Spain's world championship leader Marc Marquez will start on pole in Sunday's French MotoGP on the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans after coming out on top in Saturday's qualifying. READ () »
A man was arrested on Friday after causing a scare at the Cannes Film Festival, where he attacked a TV studio with a gun loaded with blanks and a dummy grenade, police and witnesses said. READ () »
French actor and newly-minted Russian citizen Gerard Depardieu on Saturday compared President Vladimir Putin to the late Pope John Paul II and said the ex-KGB agent is what Russia needs as a leader. READ () »
France became the 14th country to legalise same-sex marriage Saturday after President Francois Hollande signed the measure into law following months of bitter political debate. READ () »
Struggling French oyster farmers, whose haul has diminished in recent years, are set to receive some much needed help from their Swedish counterparts, by importing oyster spats from Sweden for the first time. READ () »
France's highest court the Constitutional Council cleared the divisive gay marriage bill on Friday, paving the way for same sex unions to become legal. Francois Hollande said he would sign the bill into law as soon as Saturday. READ () »