|French president in Mali to back French troops, visits Timbuktu||
Hollande, accompanied by his ministers for defense, foreign affairs and development, was greeted by a group of dancers and singers at Timbuktu airport and then went on to visit the Grand Mosque in the UNESCO World Heritage Site city.
Heavily-armed French soldiers in armored vehicles and Malian troops ringed the ancient mosque, built from mud bricks and wooden beams. French and Malian flags fluttered from telephone poles.
Local people chanted “Vive La France” and praised Hollande for France's military intervention in its former West African colony, which after three weeks has pushed fighters occupying the north into more remote desert and mountains.
“I'm so proud of Francois Hollande, we have got our old lives back,” Khalifa Cisse, the muzzein or crier who calls the faithful to daily prayer at the mosque, told Reuters, wearing a flowing white robe and cap and a red, white and blue scarf.
They had also destroyed up to 2,000 of some 300,000 priceless ancient manuscripts held in the city. Curators say the bulk of the scholarly texts are however secure and safe.
During his one-day visit to Mali, which will also take him to the southern capital Bamako, Hollandewas expected to outline the next steps of the French military operation, which has so far retaken from the rebels the main towns of the north.
Hollande has said that the French operation, which has 3,500 soldiers on Malian soil backed by warplanes, helicopters and armored vehicles, wants to hand over to a larger UN-backed African force which is still being deployed.
Sustained French airstrikes have forced fighters from the militant alliance that was occupying northern Mali to retreat into the remote Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border. The rebels are also believed to be holding there seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.
The United States and Europe are backing the UN-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical ist jihadists using the inhospitable and ungoverned Malian Saharan north as a launch pad for international attacks.
The U.S. and European governments are providing training, logistical and intelligence support to the French-led operation in Mali, but have ruled out sending ground troops.
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