TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — French President Francois Hollande landed Saturday in the fabled Malian town of Timbuktu, making a triumphant stop six days after French forces parachuted in to liberate the desert city from the rule of al-Qaida-linked militants.
The French launched their military operation to oust the extremists three weeks ago, and have since taken back the three main northern cities ruled by the rebels for about 10 months.
Hollande indicated Friday that during his visit to the former French colony, he would discuss the reduction of French troop levels on the ground to make way for an African force, led by Mali. He said his visit aims to encourage "the Africans (to) come join us as quickly as possible and to say that we need this international force."
Hollande, who was accompanied by France's foreign and defense ministers on Saturday, first headed to the Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu.
Turbaned dignitaries were waiting to greet him at the mosque built between 1325 and 1326. Crowds shouted "Vive la France! Vive Francois Hollande!" as he passed them.
"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 those who showed up to greet the French delegation.
"I'm really scared 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.
Soldiers with bomb-sniffing dogs and at least nine armored personnel carriers patrolled the sand-enveloped courtyard outside the library of ancient manuscripts, a section of which was set on fire by the Islamists when they fled the city ahead of the advancing French troops last week.
People came out holding French flags including some that consisted of no more than a watercolor of France's red, white and blue to greet the president. Women who have been forced to wear all-enveloping veils for the past year donned vibrantly colored clothes and their finest jewelry. All activities that were considered haram or forbidden, under a strict interpretation of Islam imposed by the occupiers. One of them is 25-year-old Fatou Toure, who screamed with joy as the presidential convoy arrived.
"It's the president of France who freed us from the prison we have lived in for the past 10 months," she said.
Around 800 French forces took part in the effort to free Timbuktu, including hundreds of paratroopers who parachuted onto nearby dunes.
Radical militants last April had seized the town, once a popular tourist destination and revered center of Islamic learning.
They began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah, amputating the hand of a suspected thief and whipping women and girls who ventured into public without veils scenes reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"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.
France now has 3,500 troops taking part in the Mali operation, in which they are working with Malian soldiers and preparing the way for an African military contingent to help stabilize the vast country. The French-led intervention so far has rapidly forced the retreat of militants out of urban centers in Mali's north, which had been under the extremists' control.
Hollande said that another goal of his visit was to push Malian leaders to enter a political dialogue, but he did not elaborate. Part of the reason the armed extremists were able to grab control of Mali's north was because of a coup last March that threw the once-peaceful country into turmoil.
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed in Timbuktu, Mali contributed to this report.