TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — French President Francois Hollande bathed in the cheers and accolades of the thousands of people of this embattled city on Saturday, making a triumphant stop six days after French forces parachuted into Timbuktu to liberate the fabled city from the radical Islamists occupying it.
His arrival comes three weeks after France unilaterally launched a military intervention in order to stem the advance of the al-Qaida-linked fighters, and since then French troops have succeeded in ousting the rebels from the three main northern cities they occupied, including Timbuktu.
"Alongside the Malians and the Africans, we have liberated this town. Today Timbuktu. Tomorrow Kidal. And others are still to come," Hollande told the French troops who stood at attention on the tarmac of the city's airport. They secured the airfield on Monday, after special forces parachuted onto the dunes just north of the city. They were joined by 600 infantrymen, who came in by land in a convoy of armored cars. "You have accomplished an exceptional mission."
Thousands of people stood elbow-to-elbow behind a perimeter line in downtown Timbuktu, hoisting the homemade French flags they had prepared for Hollande's arrival. The swatches of red, white and blue fabric were sown together by hand, and held up by sticks. Others painted the three colors on pieces of paper, and held them aloft as the president's convoy rolled into the sand-blanketed square.
Women wore vibrantly-colored African prints, and bared their midriffs, their arms and their backs, after nearly a year of being forced to wear a colorless, all-enveloping veil. They danced as men played the drums — a loud, raucous celebration after months of privation.
Fatou Traore, a 25-year-old student screamed out her thanks as the French president stepped out of an armored Toyota V8 all-terrain vehicle. "It's the president of France who has freed us from the prison we have lived in for the past 10 months," she said, emotions overtaking her, as she laughed and cried at the same time.
In a sign of how tense the city remains, Hollande arrived with what looked like a private army. Soldiers holding bomb-sniffing dogs and at least a dozen armored personnel carriers patrolled the square in front of the library of ancient manuscripts which Hollande visited during his two-hour stop in the city.
Just before French troops arrived in Timbuktu last week, the retreating Islamic extremists set fire to a portion of the collection at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research. It was their final blow, not just to Mali but to the world. The oldest manuscripts in the repository date back nearly 1,000 years, and are crucial to Africa's identity, because they show that the continent had a written record, not just an oral history, said the library's acting director Abdoulaye Cisse.
Although an inventory has not yet been completed, the director believes less than 5 percent of the library's priceless manuscripts were destroyed, because the majority of the library was spirited out of the library and hidden hundreds of miles away in the capital, said Cisse.
Despite the outpouring of joy, many expressed worry about France's long-term intentions. Mali's military has proved to be no match for the better-armed Islamic extremists, who seized a territory equal in size to France last year, after the army simply abandoned their posts. Hollande made clear that France intends to hand off the control of the recuperated terrain to Mali's military, and to the African troops pledged by neighboring countries.
"Now, it's the Malians who have the responsibility to assure the transition, and especially the security, of their country," he said at the airport. Asked by reporters how soon French troops will begin to draw down from Timbuktu, he said: "The handover is soon enough."
Around 800 French soldiers are still stationed in Timbuktu, out of a total of 3,500 taking part in the operation codenamed Serval, after a sub-Saharan wildcat.
"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 the turbaned dignitaries who lined up to shake the French leader's hand in front of one of Timbuktu's ancient mosques. "I'm really frightened 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, naming the town whose seizure by the Islamists last month prompted Hollande to launch the intervention on Jan. 11.
The president is also visiting Bamako, the capital of Mali.
As Hollande's convoy rolled out of town on the carpet of sand that leads to the airport, the French president passed the billboards erected by the Islamic rebels, saying: "The city of Timbuktu was founded on Islam, and will be judged on Islamic law." He passed storefronts where advertisements were blotted out, because they showed figures of women. The occupiers banned music and alcohol, smoking and dancing, playing football, and wearing jewelry, makeup or perfume. They lashed women who showed so much as a centimeter of skin, amputated the hands of thieves, and stoned a couple to death, because they had had children out of wedlock.
"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.
One of the thousands of people who came out to see Hollande on Saturday took the time to write out a personal message, penned on a piece of particle board, which he hoisted above his head. It said: "Hollande, for us you represent the angel which stopped the calamity."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed in Timbuktu, Mali contributed to this report.