French president arrives in Timbuktu
By Rukmini Callimachi ,APTIMBUKTU, Mali -- French President Francois Hollande landed Saturday in the fabled Malian town of Timbuktu, making a triumphant stop six days after French forces parachuted in to liberate the desert city from the rule of al-Qaida-linked militants.
February 3, 2013, 12:08 am TWN
The French launched their military operation to oust the extremists three weeks ago, and have since taken back the three main northern cities ruled by the rebels for about 10 months.
Hollande indicated Friday that during his visit to the former French colony, he would discuss the reduction of French troop levels on the ground 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.”
Hollande, who was accompanied by France's foreign and defense ministers on Saturday, first headed to the Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu.
Turbaned dignitaries were waiting to greet him at the mosque built between 1325 and 1326. 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.
“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,” he said.
Soldiers with bomb-sniffing dogs and at least nine armored personnel carriers patrolled the sand-enveloped courtyard outside the library of ancient manuscripts, a section of which was set on fire by the Islamists when they fled the city ahead of the advancing French troops last week.
People came out holding French flags including some that consisted of no more than a watercolor of France's red, white and blue to greet the president. Women who have been forced to wear all-enveloping veils for the past year donned vibrantly colored clothes and their finest jewelry — all activities that were considered haram or forbidden, under a strict interpretation of Islam imposed by the occupiers. One of them is 25-year-old Fatou Toure, who screamed with joy as the presidential convoy arrived.
“It's the president of France who freed us from the prison we have lived in for the past 10 months,” she said.