Triumphant François Hollande to visit Mali to thank troops

Uncertainty remains over what comes next as human rights concerns cast cloud over victory

François Hollande will pay a triumphant visit to Mali on Saturday to congratulate French troops who have succeeded in routing Islamist rebels from the north of the country in a whirlwind three weeks of fighting.

The French president, accompanied by his defence, foreign and development ministers, will visit the capital, Bamako, before flying to the Saharan desert town of Timbuktu, recently freed from sharia law by the arrival of French and Malian soldiers.

Hollande's visit is designed to play to his domestic audience and show that his high-risk decision to intervene in the former colony has paid off. The French military will whisk TV crews to Timbuktu to record the occasion.

Until just over a week ago, fighters from AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) controlled Timbuktu, torching its showpiece library of ancient manuscripts in a vengeful departing act. They retreated from the town without firing a shot.

Malians have overwhelmingly welcomed France's military operation, which involved 3,700 troops on the ground. Their own unelected leaders failed to stop a rebel advance last year, which meant the towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal fell under Islamist rule. French, Malian and other African forces have retaken all three.

But with the major phase of Paris's campaign over, there is uncertainty about what comes next: a lasting peace or, as seems more probable, a simmering guerrilla war. There are also questions about the human rights record of Mali's army: Amnesty and Human Rights Watch accused the military on Friday in separate reports of carrying out extra-judicial killings.

Some Malians, meanwhile, are unhappy about negotiations in Kidal between French forces and the MNLA, a secular Tuareg nationalist militia that has been fighting in the south for decades. The MNLA wants an independent republic – something Dioncounda Traoré, Mali's interim president, has categorically ruled out.

Hollande's meeting with the unelected Traoré is likely to be brief. Traoré got the job after low-ranking army officers toppled the previous democratic president in a coup in March. Amid pressure from western countries, he has announced elections this summer.

France's defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has declared the intervention a success, while recognising that Mali's situation is not secure. He also said Malians must now establish a "reconciliation process". But this call has left some unhappy. "I welcome the French. But I'm extremely angry they are talking to the MNLA," Ibrahim al-Senussi, a corporal in Mali's army, said. "The MNLA are liars and traitors."

The fate of several French hostages held by Islamist groups is likely to feature in any private dialogue between Paris and northern Malian leaders. Some 11 westerners are being held by jihadist forces, it is believed, including three tourists who were kidnapped from their hotel in Timbuktu in 2011. A German who resisted was shot dead.

There has been no information on the hostages. But the remote mountains north of Kidal have previously been a haven for radical Islamist guerrillas. French fighter jets bombed the area on Thursday.

An Elysée diplomatic source said Hollande's visit was to "express his support and gratitude" to French and African troops. But bringing Pascal Canfin, the French development minister, one of only two Green party members in the Socialist-led government, is calculated to show that the trip is not just about military operations, but longer-term reconstruction.

Most of the French public back the intervention in Mali, even if it is not their top concern. A BVA poll this week suggested Hollande's swift decision to deploy troops had boosted his presidential stature and approval ratings slightly. But pollsters said despite a small bounce in ratings, Hollande's status remained "fragile" – the president is unpopular because of high unemployment and the economic crisis.

This week he said French and African forces in Mali were "winning the battle", but the joint African force taking over must continue the pursuit of Islamists in the north. France is due to hand over to a UN-backed African force of some 8,000 soldiers gradually, : its job will be to secure northern towns and pursue militants into their mountain redoubts near Algeria's border, but timings remain unclear.

Contributors

Luke Harding in Mopti and Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

François Hollande arrives in Timbuktu, Mali - video

French president François Hollande arrives in Timbuktu, Mali, following successful French military operations in the region

02, Feb, 2013 @12:19 PM

François Hollande visits Timbuktu as Mali intervention declared successful

With the key phase of France's campaign over, it is unclear whether lasting peace or a simmering guerrilla war will follow

Conal Urquhart, Luke Harding in Mopti and Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

02, Feb, 2013 @11:46 AM

Article image
France launches air strikes on Mali
President François Hollande responds to advance south by Islamist rebels by sending armed forces to aid Malian troops

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent and Nick Hopkins

11, Jan, 2013 @7:37 PM

Article image
Mali: high stakes in 'Hollande's war'

Angelique Chrisafis: Unpopular in the polls and accused of dithering on the economy, Mali has shown the French president in decisive mode

Angelique Chrisafis

13, Jan, 2013 @10:05 PM

Article image
French hostage freed three years after capture in Mali
Serge Lazarevic said to be in relatively good health after being held by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb since 2011

Kim Willsher in Paris

09, Dec, 2014 @3:46 PM

Article image
France's move into Mali follows push south by jihadist fighters
Paris and UK warn their citizens to leave country following rebels' capture of village that had been held by Malian army

Nick Hopkins

11, Jan, 2013 @6:19 PM

Air Algérie crash: François Hollande offers condolences – video

The French president confirms that the wreckage of flight AH5017 has been found in the Gossi area of Mali

25, Jul, 2014 @10:43 AM

Article image
François Hollande should enjoy his Malian fillip while it lasts | Nabila Ramdani

Nabila Ramdani: France's efficiency in Mali will boost the former army officer, but he leaves behind an unstable region and a shape-shifting enemy

Nabila Ramdani

07, Feb, 2013 @10:34 AM

Article image
French troops arrive in Mali to stem rebel advance
François Hollande responds to Malian president's plea for help, as UN calls for swift deployment of international force

Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent

11, Jan, 2013 @5:29 PM

Article image
Mali: French troops in direct combat with insurgents 'within hours'
France accuses militants of using human shields, as five Japanese nationals and a French citizen kidnapped in Algeria

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Afua Hirsch in Bamako and agencies

16, Jan, 2013 @11:56 AM