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.
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 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.”
President Francois Hollande is to visit Mali, where three weeks of targeted French air strikes have forced Islamist militants to retreat.
France’s President Francois Hollande will fly into Bamako to meet interim President Dioncounda Traore, his office says.
He is set to visit Timbuktu, recently seized from Islamist rebels by French and Malian troops, on Saturday.
The French military intervention has recaptured large parts of northern Mali from Islamist groups.
French troops are currently securing Kidal, the last major town which was occupied by militants who had controlled much of the northern part of the former French colony since a coup last year.
Francois Hollande will be joined on his trip by Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canin.
Earlier, Jean-Yves Le Drian said the jihadists had now scattered, marking a “turning-point” in France’s intervention.
President Francois Hollande is to visit Mali, where three weeks of targeted French air strikes have forced Islamist militants to retreat
French polls suggest the public only have patience for a limited operation: Eradicating the Islamist threat entirely is a bridge too far.
Francois Hollande’s objective is to prepare to hand over the towns the French-led troops have captured to an African force that has begun to deploy to Mali, and create enough stability to facilitate new elections by July.
So far about 2,000 African soldiers, mainly from Chad and Niger, are on the ground in Mali.
On Thursday, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said a column of 1,400 troops from Chad was heading towards Kidal from the Niger border.
It will be the job of the African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma), to root out the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents that have fled into the desert and mountains further north.
The Tuareg rebels launched the insurgency in October 2011 before falling out with the Islamist militants.
The Islamist fighters extended their control of the vast north of Mali in April 2012, in the wake of a military coup.
France launched a military operation this month after the Islamist militants appeared to be threatening the south.
Algerian troops have surrounded a gas facility in the east of the country where foreign workers are being held hostage by Islamist militants.
The kidnappers occupied the complex at In Amenas on Wednesday, after killing a Briton and an Algerian in an attack on a bus.
Algeria says some 20 foreign nationals are being held hostage, although the kidnappers say they have 41.
The captives include British, Japanese, US, French and Norwegian nationals.
One statement purported to be from the hostage-takers demanded an end to the French military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila said the militants wanted to leave the country with the hostages, but he had refused to let them go.
“We reject all negotiations with the group,” he told reporters late on Wednesday.
Daho Ould Kabila added that the kidnappers were Algerian and operating under orders from Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a senior commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) before late last year, when he set up his own armed group after apparently falling out with other leaders.
Minister Daho Ould Kabila said a heavily armed “terrorist group” had attacked a bus carrying workers from In Amenas at about 05:00 on Wednesday.
The gas field is operated by the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, along with the British oil company BP and Norway’s Statoil.
It is located about 1,300 km (800 miles) south-east of Algiers, and about 60 km (37 miles) west of the Libyan border.
The attackers were repelled by police who had been escorting the bus, but a Briton and an Algerian national had been killed, Daho Ould Kabila said.
Two other British nationals, a Norwegian, two police officers and a security guard were also hurt in the fire fight, he added.
Afterwards, the militants drove to the gas facility’s living quarters and took a number of Algerian and foreign workers hostage.
Dozens of Algerian workers were later released.
Senior al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been identified as the leader behind Algeria kidnapping
The foreign nationals were being held in one wing of the living quarters, which the security services and army had surrounded, Daho Ould Kabila said.
“Since then, they’ve been facing off. The security forces are consolidating their position around the base,” he added.
Early on Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that a Briton had died and that “a number” of others were being held hostage.
He described the killings as the “cold-blooded murder of people going about their business”.
A worker told France’s Le Figaro newspaper the captors had mined the facility and demanded food, water and vehicles.
Daho Ould Kabila said nearby border crossings had been closed as a precaution and that the foreign ministry was in contact with diplomats from the hostages’ countries.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed the captives included “a number of British nationals”, adding: “This is therefore a very dangerous situation.”
He said the UK government was working “around the clock” to resolve the crisis.
US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said he could not confirm the exact number of Americans seized in the attack.
“By all indications this is a terrorist act and the United States strongly condemns these kinds of terrorist acts,” he said.
Meanwhile Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said 13 Norwegian employees of Statoil were believed held hostage at the gas facility. Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said one of its nationals was a hostage.
Japanese news agencies, citing unnamed government officials, said there were three Japanese hostages.
Two groups led by Belmokhtar – the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion – said they were behind the incident.
Earlier, a man claiming to be a spokesman for the militants said al-Qaeda had carried out the attack.
A list of demands had been sent to Algerian authorities, and the hostages would be killed if troops attempted to rescue them, the spokesman added.
”Storming the gas complex would be easy for the Algerian military, but the outcome of such an operation would be disastrous,” he warned.
In a statement carried on Mauritanian media, the Signed-in-Blood Battalion said it would hold the Algerian and French governments and the nations of the hostages responsible if its demands were not met, saying they must bring an end to the French intervention in Mali.
Militant groups have vowed to avenge the intervention, where French forces have been battling Islamists linked to AQIM for the past week.
Algeria has been allowing French aircraft to use its air space.
Fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in late 1980s
Former leading figure in al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb. Left in late 2012 after falling out with leaders
Now heads the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion
Known as “The One-Eyed” as he wears an eyepatch over a lost eye
French intelligence has dubbed him “The Uncatchable”, while locals refer to him as “Mister Marlboro” for his illicit cigarettes operation