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French President Hollande Visits Mali

Malians have turned out to welcome French President Francois Hollande, who is on a whirlwind tour of the former French colony.

His Saturday visit comes three weeks after French-backed Malian forces pushed Islamist militants from their strongholds in the country's north.

President Hollande, accompanied by the defense and finance ministers, visited the town of Sevare before heading to the ancient Malian town of Timbuktu. French-backed Malian forces recaptured the fabled town on Sunday, 10 months after it had been taken over by rebels.

In Timbuktu, dancers and drummers greeted the French president while Malians chanted "Vive La France." He toured an ancient mosque and a library that had both been targeted by militants.

He told reporters the Malian army had played a key role in liberating towns in the region.

"All the cities which were freed, were freed by the Malian army, supported by the French army. It was always the Malians who entered first. Kidal, they needed to go to the airport and there were very special circumstances, then there were sand storms, so that has stopped the operation but it will continue, because our will and the one expressed by Mali is that France puts itself at the service of Mali within the framework of the United Nations and it is one of the complete return of territorial integrity in Mali."

Mr. Hollande is pushing for African forces to take over for French troops that have been battling insurgents.

Meanwhile, French-backed Malian forces are securing the town of Kidal, the last major stronghold of Islamist militants in the country's north.

On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the French news agency that French forces had rolled back the Islamist militants "much faster" than Washington had expected, but now face the daunting task of building long-term security in the region.

The United States has been assisting the French military in Mali, but has not sent in any troops.

On Thursday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared the intervention in Mali a success, but added that Mali's situation is not yet secure. The minister said in an interview on French radio that the Malians must establish "a reconciliation process" to ensure a stable future.

Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, has said he will not hold talks with Islamists who controlled the north before French and Malian forces drove them out. But Mr. Traore told French radio Thursday he would consider meeting with the Tuareg rebel group MNLA if it drops its claim to Malian territory.

The MNLA has been fighting for a Tuareg homeland. It seized part of northern Mali last year and later joined forces with Islamic militants when the Malian government collapsed. The Tuaregs later split with the militants when they imposed conservative Islamic law in the north, and the MNLA now says it backs the French military operation in Mali.


(no access France)

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