TIMBUKTU, Mali — French President Francois Hollande bathed in the cheers of thousands of people of this embattled city on Saturday, making a triumphant stop six days after French forces parachuted into Timbuktu to liberate the fabled city from radical Islamists.
His arrival comes three weeks after France unilaterally launched a military intervention to stem the advance of the al-Qaida-linked fighters, and since then French troops have succeeded in ousting the rebels from the three main northern cities they occupied, including Timbuktu.
“Alongside the Malians and the Africans, we have liberated this town. Today Timbuktu. Tomorrow Kidal. And others are still to come,” Hollande told the French troops at the city’s airport.
They secured the airfield on Monday, after special forces parachuted just north of the city. They were joined by 600 infantrymen, who came in by land in a convoy of armored cars.
Thousands of people stood elbow-to-elbow behind a perimeter line in downtown Timbuktu, hoisting the homemade French flags they had prepared.
Women wore vibrantly-colored African prints, and bared their midriffs, their arms and their backs, after nearly a year of being forced to wear a colorless, all-enveloping veil.
They danced as men played the drums — a loud, raucous celebration after months of privation.