France’s President Francois Hollande is visiting Mali, three weeks after French-led troops launched an offensive to oust Islamist rebels from the country’s north.
Francois Hollande was welcomed by dignitaries and residents in Timbuktu, six days after the city was recaptured.
He is expected to thank the French soldiers and stress the need for an African force to replace them swiftly.
Meanwhile, the UN has warned of the risk of reprisal attacks against Tuareg and Arab communities in northern Mali.
The UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, said there had been serious allegations of human rights violations committed by the Malian army, including summary executions and disappearances.
There had also been reports of incidents of mob lynching and looting of properties belonging to Arab and Tuareg communities, which had been accused of supporting armed Islamist groups, Adama Dieng added.
“I call on the Malian army to discharge its responsibility to protect all populations, irrespective of their race or ethnicity,” he said.
The allegations came as heavily-armored columns of French and Malian troops continued their advance in northern Mali.
They are attempting to secure the north-eastern city of Kidal, the militants’ last stronghold, having captured the airport on Wednesday.
Francois Hollande flew into the central town of Sevare on Saturday morning, accompanied by his ministers of defence, foreign affairs and development. Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traore, met them at the airport.
They then flew to Timbuktu’s airport before being driven to the 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba Institute, where fleeing militants set fire to about 2,000 priceless manuscripts.
Thousands of locals gathered in the city’s main square to welcome Francois Hollande. Many changed “Vive la France” and praised the president for ordering the military intervention in France’s former colony.
“The women of Timbuktu will thank Francois Hollande forever,” 53-year-old Fanta Diarra Toure told the AFP news agency.
“We must tell him that he has cut down the tree but still has to tear up its roots,” she added, referring to the Islamist militants.
Speaking on Friday before he flew to Mali, Francois Hollande said he wanted “to express to our soldiers all our support, encouragement and pride”.
“I’m also going to ensure that African forces come and join us as quickly as possible and to tell them we need them for this international force,” he added.
He said he wanted Mali’s transitional government to restore democracy soon and begin a political dialogue with opposition groups in the north.
However, this is not quite a “mission accomplished” moment for Francois Hollande, because the Islamist militants remain a threat.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday that the French-led forces had recaptured the major population centres “must faster” than he had expected, but warned that they now had to ensure long-term security.
“They have made tremendous progress, I give them a lot of credit,” he told the AFP news agency.
“But the challenge now is to make sure that you can maintain that security and that you are not overstretched and that, ultimately, as you begin to pull back, that the other African nations are prepared to move in and fill the gap of providing security.”francois hollande, islamist rebels, kidal, northern mali, timbuktu, vive la france