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.
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 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,” Hollande said.
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.