France's President Francois Hollande (L) and Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore (R), wave upon his arrival at the airport of Timbuktu during his one-day visit in Mali February 2, 2013. — Reuters Photo

TIMBUKTU: 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 Qaeda -linked militants.          

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 militants 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.

Around 800 French forces took part in the effort to free Timbuktu, including hundreds of paratroopers who parachuted onto nearby dunes. Extremists militants had seized the town last April, once a popular tourist destination and revered center of Islamic learning.

''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,'' Ben Essayati said.

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 stabilise the vast country. The French-led intervention so far has rapidly forced the retreat of militants out of urban centers in Mali's north, which had been under the extremists' control.

Hollande said that another goal of his visit was to push Malian leaders to enter a political dialogue, but he did not elaborate. Part of the reason the armed extremists were able to grab control of Mali's north was because of a coup last March that threw the once-peaceful country into turmoil.


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