FRENCH president François Hollande basked in the cheers and accolades of the people of Timbuktu yesterday.
He made a triumphant visit six days after French forces parachuted into the desert city to “liberate” it from radical Islamists who had occupied it for the past ten months.
His arrival came three weeks after France unilaterally launched a military intervention meant to stem the advance of al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
Since then, French troops have apparently 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 French troops who stood to attention on the tarmac of the city’s airport.
They secured the airfield last Monday, after special forces parachuted on to the dunes just north of the city. They were joined by 600 infantrymen, who came in by land in a convoy of armoured cars.
“You have accomplished an exceptional mission,” France’s socialist president told them. Thousands of people stood elbow-to-elbow behind a perimeter line in the centre of 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 tricolore on pieces of paper, and held them aloft as the president’s convoy rolled into the sand-blanketed square.
Women wore brightly- coloured African prints, and bared their midriffs, their arms and their backs, after nearly a year of being forced to wear a colourless, 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, bawled her thanks as the French president stepped out of an armoured 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 ten months,” she said, laughing and crying at the same time in a display of extreme emotion.
In a sign of how tense the city remains, however, Hollande arrived with what looked like a private army.
Soldiers holding bomb- sniffing dogs and at least a dozen armoured 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 seen by many as a parting blow both to Mali and the wider world.
The oldest manuscripts in the repository date back nearly 1,000 years, and are considered vital to Africa’s cultural identity, as 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, Cisse said he believed less than 5 per cent of the library’s priceless manuscripts were destroyed, because the majority of the material was spirited out of the library and hidden hundreds of miles away in the capital, Bamako.
Despite the public celebrations yesterday, many expressed worry about France’s long-term intentions. Mali’s military has proved to be no match for the better-armed Islamist extremists, who seized a territory equal in size to France last year, after the army simply abandoned its posts.
Hollande made clear that France intended to hand over the control of the recovered territory to Mali’s military, and to the African troops pledged by neighbouring countries in the region.
“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 how soon French troops will begin to withdraw from Timbuktu, he refused to be drawn on the details, and said only that: “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, code-named 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.
He added: “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 11 January.
The French president is also visiting the Malian capital, 440 miles to the south.
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 shop fronts where advertisements were blotted out, because they portrayed women.
The Islamists banned music and alcohol, smoking and dancing, playing football, and wearing jewellery, makeup or perfume.
In practices reminiscent of the Taleban regime that ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist in the 1990s, the extremists flogged women who showed so much as an inch of skin, amputated the hands of thieves, and stoned a couple to death for having children out of wedlock.
“We have just spent ten 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 yesterday 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.”