TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) - Malians chanting “Thank you, France!” mobbed President Francois Hollande on Saturday as he visited the desert city of Timbuktu, retaken from Islamist rebels, and pledged France’s sustained support for Mali to expel jihadists.
Hollande, accompanied by his ministers for defence, foreign affairs and development, was on a one-day trip to the Sahel nation to support French troops who in three weeks have ousted fighters allied with al Qaeda from Mali’s main northern towns.
He met the interim president, Dioncounda Traore, and was also due to fly to the capital Bamako.
Speaking in Timbuktu, Hollande said the French operation, which has driven the rebels into the mountains of northeast Mali at the cost of only one French serviceman killed so far, would eventually hand over to a larger African military force.
“The combat is not over,” he said, flanked by Traore, in a speech praising the French forces.
“We are obliged to support the Malians until they have recovered their entire sovereignty. We’ll do it with the Africans,” he added separately to reporters.
Traore said: “Together we will hunt the terrorists down to their last hiding place.”
In Timbuktu, the renowned Saharan trading town and seat of Islamic learning that spent 10 months under rebel occupation, Hollande visited the Djingarei-ber or Grand Mosque and the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library of ancient manuscripts that was ransacked by the rebels.
Hollande said it was essential that Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, should be properly protected so that it could “shine” as a cultural treasure for the world.
Heavily armed French soldiers in armoured vehicles and Malian troops protected the French leader as he visited the mosque, built from mud bricks and wood in 1325. French and Malian flags fluttered from telephone poles.
French sniffer dogs also checked for explosive devices.
In a dusty square at the Ahmed Baba library, several thousand Timbuktu residents in colourful robes and wraps sang and danced, shouting “Thank you, France” and “Papa Hollande”.
“I‘m so proud of Francois Hollande, we have got our old lives back,” Khalifa Cisse, the muezzin or crier who calls the faithful to daily prayer at the mosque, told Reuters, wearing a flowing white robe and cap and a scarf in the French colours of blue, white and red.
Hollande has said that the French operation, which has 3,500 soldiers on Malian soil backed by warplanes, helicopters and armoured vehicles, wants to hand over to a U.N.-backed African force, which is still being deployed.
Drawn mostly from Mali’s West African neighbours, this force is expected to number more than 8,000. But its deployment has been badly hampered by shortages of kit and airlift capacity and questions about who will fund the estimated $1 billion cost.
The United States and the European Union are backing the Mali intervention as a counterstrike against the threat of Islamist jihadists using the inhospitable and ungoverned Malian Sahara as a launch pad for international attacks.
They are providing training, logistical and intelligence support, but have ruled out sending ground troops to join those from France and West Africa.
The international community has greeted the liberation of Timbuktu with relief.
The town is a centre of Islamic scholarship in the tolerant Sufi tradition, but the sharia-observing radical Islamist occupiers smashed ancient Sufi mausoleums, calling them idolatrous.
The rebels also destroyed up to 2,000 of some 300,000 priceless ancient manuscripts held in the city. Experts say the bulk of the texts are secure and safe, however.
Timbuktu residents rejoiced at being freed from the severe version of Islamic law imposed by the rebels, who had forced women to go veiled and inflicted beatings and amputations.
“These so-called Islamists did nothing but evil to us, they beat people, they cut off limbs,” said Lala Toure, a woman who went unveiled and wore a short-sleeved white T-shirt with the printed words “Thank you France for your help”.
“Today, thank God, we can dress as we want,” she added.
Cisse, the muezzin, said the rebels, grouped in a loose alliance that includes al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM, had tried to impose an unfamiliar radical form of Islam on Mali.
“We know Islam ... in this town of Islam, the first words a child hears are ‘Allahu Akbar (God is Great)',” he said.
French air strikes have forced the rebel fighters to retreat into the remote Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border. Hollande said this was where the rebels were holding seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.
The next stage of the fight against the Islamist militants, in a harsh Saharan battleground, could test the French and Malian forces and their African and other allies.
Some Timbuktu residents begged the French never to leave Mali, which became independent from France in 1960.
“As long as France is here, they (the Islamist rebels) will not be able to come back,” said Abdoulaye Bella, 64, a tailor. (Additional reporting by Elena Berton in Paris; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Kevin Liffey)