Hollande to visit Mali as French troops eye last bastion

REFrench President Francois Hollande speaks to journalists in Grenoble about the liberation of Florence Cassez January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Pratta

TIMBUKTU, Mali: President Francois Hollande prepared to visit Mali as French-led troops worked Friday to secure the last Islamist stronghold in the north after a lightning offensive against the extremists.

Hollande, whose surprise decision to intervene in Mali three weeks ago has won broad support at home, will visit the former French colony Saturday with Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canin, his office said.

Hollande will travel first to the fabled city of Timbuktu, where according to the Malian presidency he will meet with troops and visit the 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Ahmed Baba library, where Islamists burned priceless ancient manuscripts before fleeing.

Hollande and interim Malian president Dioncounde Traore, who will visit Timbuktu together, will then travel to the capital, Bamako, for a working lunch, Traore's office said on Twitter.

The trip comes as troops are gathered at the gates of the rebels' last stronghold, Kidal, poised to secure the sandy northeastern outpost after capturing its airport Wednesday before being delayed by a sandstorm.

The French-led campaign has claimed a rapid succession of victories in key Islamist strongholds taken over after a March coup in Bamako paved the way for the rebels to seize an area as large as Texas.

But the joy of citizens throwing off the yoke of brutal Islamist rule, under which they were denied music and television and threatened with whippings, amputations and execution, has been accompanied by a grim backlash against light-skinned citizens seen as supporters of the Al Qaeda-linked radicals.

Rights groups have reported summary executions by both the Malian army and the Islamists.

Human Rights Watch said Islamists were implicated in the execution of at least seven Malian soldiers, slitting their throats or shooting them in the mouth.

It also said at least 13 suspected Islamist supporters in the central garrison town of Sevare were shot and dumped into wells, a report corroborated by other rights groups.

These abuses took place as the Islamists seized Konna, north of Sevare, in a push into government-held territory which sparked France's surprise intervention on January 11 amid fears the entire country could become a haven for terrorists.

In Konna, another five people were "disappeared", their relatives and neighbours told Human Rights Watch.

The imam at the Timbuktu mosque Hollande will visit called for tolerance in his Friday prayers.

"I asked the faithful to stay calm," Abdramane Ben Essayouti told journalists after the service.

"We have always preached a tolerant Islam," said the mosque's muezzin Khalifa Cisse.

He said of the Islamists: "They carried Islam in their mouths, but not in their hearts. A true Muslim doesn't take up arms, doesn't kill people, doesn't cut a thief's hand."

Amnesty International also called on the French army to launch an independent investigation into the deaths of five civilians killed in a helicopter attack at the start of the campaign.

The Malian army has denied any crimes by its troops.

Mali's military was humiliated at the hands of armed rebel groups in the north, whose members are mostly light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs, before the French army swept to their aid.

With fears of reprisal attacks high, many Arabs and Tuaregs have fled.

"The Arabs are gone. They're lucky, because we had a sad fate in store for them," said Ousmane, a local shopkeeper in the town of Gao.

The French-led troops -- which now number about 3,500 -- have met little resistance in their campaign, with many of the extremists believed to have slipped into the desert hills around Kidal.

France is keen to hand over its military operation to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed, which the United Nations is considering turning into a formal UN peacekeeping operation.

While largely supported by the French public, the intervention has not yet paid domestic political dividends for Hollande, failing to reverse a steep slide in his approval ratings as the economy has struggled since he took office in May.





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