Hollande to visit Mali today

February 02, 2013 - 2:43:52 am

TIMBUKTU: President Francois Hollande prepared to visit Mali as French-led troops worked yesterday 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 today 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.