TIMBUKTU, Mali – 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.
He arrived three weeks after France unilaterally started a military intervention to stem the advance of the al-Qaida-linked fighters. And since then, French troops have ousted 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 Monday, after special forces parachuted onto the dunes just north of the city. They were joined by 600 infantrymen, who came in a convoy of armored cars. You have accomplished an exceptional mission.
Thousands of people stood elbow to elbow behind a perimeter line downtown, hoisting the homemade French flags they had prepared for Hollande’s arrival. The swatches of red, white and blue fabric were sewn 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.