French President Francois Hollande said troops would battle on to eradicate terrorists from Mali, three weeks after his forces began driving rebels out of most major towns in the West African nation’s north.
“Terrorism was pushed back, chased, but it hasn’t yet been vanquished,” Hollande told a jubilant crowd in the capital, Bamako, yesterday. “France will stay with you as long as it takes, until the time for Africans themselves to replace us. Until then we will be beside you to the end, as far as north Mali.”
Earlier in the day Hollande, accompanied by Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, spoke to French troops and visited a library and Grande Mosque during a walking tour of the ancient city of Timbuktu, where fleeing Islamist militants burned historic manuscripts before the city was captured on Jan. 28.
“The fight is not over,” Hollande said, even as France, backed by Malian and African troops, “has finally given back to Mali its unity, integrity and strength.”
The French president pledged to support the Malian economy and help with reconstruction of public services, education, health, security and cultural heritage.
Hollande urged Malians to carry out exemplary elections in July and refrain from extra-judicial recriminations against locals who had cooperated with terrorist groups. In a speech, Traore urged the population not to resort to “vengeance, hate and settling of accounts.”
Hollande, whose popularity improved for the first time since he took office in May after the Mali intervention, recalled in Bamako his “grave decision” to engage French troops in battle and thanked Malians for their “exceptional welcome,” fervor and gratitude during his one-day visit.
“I have just lived through the most important day of my political life,” he said under heavy security to a cheering crowd waving the French red, white and blue colors and holding portraits of the president.
French and Malian troops have now retaken most of the territory held by Islamist militants who overran the region last year. A push by insurgents to take a key government-held town earlier this month prompted the French military move amid concern the rebels were advancing toward Bamako.
France “doesn’t want to meddle in the political affairs of Mali,” Hollande said. The landlocked nation’s territorial integrity would be placed under the “legitimate authority” of Traore until elections can be held, he said.
Hollande was greeted in Timbuktu by Malians sporting shirts with the flags of both countries and banners reading “Thank You France” before being presented with a camel and wading into a crowd in the desert city. He was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canfin.
Fabius told reporters in Paris on Feb. 1 that France is “advancing positively” against the insurgents. After seizing control of the towns of Gao and Timbuktu, French troops occupied the airport in Kidal, the last major rebel stronghold.
Just before the French campaign, Malian troops killed civilians suspected of siding with Islamist militants, while the insurgents executed captured soldiers and used children as fighters, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said yesterday in separate statements.
Separatist Touareg rebels and Islamist militants overran northern Mali following a March military coup in Bamako, which was prompted by soldiers who said they weren’t equipped to fight the growing insurgency. The Islamists gained dominance after clashing with the Touareg group and began implementing a strict version of Shariah law. European and U.S. officials expressed concern the region may become a haven and training ground for militant groups intent on attacking western targets.
Traore has said he’d negotiate with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the main Touareg rebel group known as the MNLA, provided it drops claims for a separate homeland. He rejected talks with Islamist groups such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.