BAMAKO: Thousands of Malians protested Thursday against French President Francois Hollande amid accusations that he is colluding in the occupation of a regional capital in the former colony by separatist rebels.
The demonstration came as Mali plans nationwide elections on July 28 despite serious concerns about the possibility of free and fair polls in Kidal, a key northern city captured by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA).
Youth and women's groups in Gao, the largest northern city, waved placards reading "no elections without trust", "our thoughts are with the victims, not the killers" and "President Francois Hollande, thank you for freedom, now for justice".
A French-led military operation launched in January ousted Al Qaeda-linked militants who had occupied the towns and cities of Mali's vast desert north but Kidal remains under the control of the armed Tuareg separatists from the MNLA.
While French troops control the airport and cooperate with the MNLA in the city, the rebels have rejected any suggestion that they should allow Malian military or government into the town to administer the upcoming election.
"The banners, which were addressed to Francois Hollande, were saying 'you liberated Mali from terrorists, now free Kidal, otherwise Mali is going to brutally divorce you'," said Ousmane Maiga, a youth activist in Gao.
Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore is in talks in Ouagadougou with Malian officials and Tuareg leaders from northern Mali to try to clear the way for a country-wide vote, including in Kidal.
But France is increasingly openly criticised by Malian press and politicians who accuse it of colluding in the occupation of Kidal.