President Francois Hollande arrived in Mali on Saturday to push for African troops to replace French forces who led a lightning advance that drove back radical Islamists from the country's desert north.
The French leader's whirlwind tour came as troops worked to secure Kidal, the last bastion of the radicals who seized control last year after a coup, raising fears that an area larger than France could become a safehaven for Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
Welcoming Hollande, thousands of people gathered in the central square of the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, dancing to the beat of drums, a forbidden activity during the extremists' 10-month occupation.
“The women of Timbuktu will thank Francois Hollande forever,” said 53-year-old Fanta Diarra Toure.
“We must tell him that he has cut down the tree but still has to tear up its roots,” she added.
Hollande was met by French and Malian troops in Timbuktu, whose sandy streets were patrolled by armoured vehicles, after starting his trip in the central garrison town of Sevare, where he joined up with Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore.
Hollande, whose surprise decision to intervene in Mali three weeks ago has won broad support at home and made him a hero in the former French colony, is due to visit the 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba library for ancient manuscripts.
Both sites were targeted by the Islamist occupiers, who destroyed two saints' tombs at Djingareyber that they considered heretical and burned some priceless manuscripts at the library before they fled the French-led troops who reclaimed the city Monday.
With the rebels ousted from all major towns but Kidal, 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 and fears that the Islamists will now wage a guerrilla campaign from the sparsely populated desert in the north.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday that French forces had rolled back the Islamist militants “much faster” than the United States had expected but now faced the daunting task of building long-term security in the region.
“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,” Panetta told AFP.
In Kidal, a first contingent of Chadian troops has now entered the town, a Malian security source said Friday, and French soldiers are stationed at the airport, which they captured Wednesday.
France's intervention on January 11, provoked by a southward rebel advance that sparked fears the entire country could become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda-linked radicals, has received an ebullient welcome in Mali.
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 Friday that Islamists were implicated in the execution of at least seven Malian soldiers, slitting their throats or shooting them in the mouth.
It also said Malian troops had shot at least 13 suspected Islamist supporters in Sevare and dumped them into wells, a report corroborated by other rights groups.
The Malian army has denied any crimes by its forces.
Amnesty International also called on the French army to launch an investigation into the deaths of five civilians killed in a helicopter attack on the town of Konna at the start of the campaign.
France said it had no helicopters active in the town at the time.
Mali's military was routed at the hands of rebel groups in the north, whose members are mostly light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs, before the French army came to their aid.
With fears of reprisal attacks high, many Arabs and Tuaregs have fled.
The French-led campaign has met little resistance, with many of the Islamists believed to have slipped into the desert hills around Kidal.
While largely supported by the French public, the intervention has not yet paid domestic political dividends for Hollande, failing to reverse a steep slide in his approval ratings as the economy struggles.
Hollande was to hold a working lunch with Mali's interim president later in the day in the capital Bamako. - Sapa-AFP