Mali hails "savior" Hollande, he says fight not over

Sat Feb 2, 2013 3:11pm EST
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By David Lewis and Richard Valdmanis

TIMBUKTU, Mali/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Cheering, grateful Malians mobbed French President Francois Hollande on Saturday as he visited French troops fighting Islamist jihadist rebels, and he pledged France would finish the job of restoring government control in the Sahel state.

In a one-day trip to Mali accompanied by his ministers for defense, foreign affairs and development, Hollande was hailed as a liberator in the ancient northern city of Timbuktu, which French and Malian forces retook from the rebels six days ago.

He also received a rapturous reception in the capital Bamako, where he said the Islamist fighters allied to al Qaeda had suffered heavy losses in a three-week-old French intervention that he ordered last month at Mali's request.

Although the insurgents have been driven from Mali's main northern towns, Hollande cautioned that the task of France's military operation in Mali, codenamed Serval (Wildcat) and involving 3,500 soldiers on the ground, was not yet over.

"There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered ... There are terrorist elements concentrated in some areas of the country, others who are dispersed. There are risks of terrorism. So, we have not yet finished our mission," he told a news conference at the French ambassador's residence.

He added France would withdraw its troops from Mali once the West African country had restored sovereignty over all its national territory and a U.N.-backed African military force, which is being deployed, could take over from the French.

"We do not foresee staying indefinitely," he said, but he spelled out no specific time frame for the French mission.

Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore thanked "our brother" Hollande for launching the French intervention. It has cost the life of only one French serviceman so far and has driven the rebels into the mountains of northeast Mali.   Continued...

France's President Francois Hollande (2nd L) stands with Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore before placing flowers in homage to deceased Malian soldiers at the Independence Plaza in Bamako, Mali February 2, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney