Thirty French warplanes yesterday blasted Islamic extremist training and logistics centers in northeast Mali, just hours after French President Francois Hollande visited the country, the military said.
Fighter jets, refueling and reconnaissance planes took part in the “major” overnight operation in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said.
Kidal is the last bastion of radicals who occupied the desert north for months before France’s surprise intervention. Tessalit, near the border with Algeria, is believed to be where seven French nationals captured by Islamists are being held.
Hollande received a rapturous welcome in Mali on Saturday as he promised that France would stay as long as necessary to continue the fight against Islamist rebels.
He told Malians it was time for Africans to take the lead, but that France would not abandon them.
Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said he hoped the French military operation in his country would continue.
“Faced with these hardened fighters whose arsenal must be destroyed, we hope that the mission will continue,” he told France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper, adding that the “aerial dimension” of the campaign was particularly important.
“Terrorism has been pushed back, it has been chased away, but it has not been defeated yet,” said Hollande, whose decision to intervene in Mali three weeks ago won him accolades in the former French colony.
“France will stay by your side as long as necessary, as long as it takes for Africans themselves ... to replace us,” he told a large crowd in the capital, Bamako, at a monument commemorating Mali’s independence from France.
Earlier, in the fabled city of Timbuktu, thousands gathered in the central square and danced to the beat of drums — a forbidden activity during the extremists’ occupation — to welcome the French leader, with shouts of “Vive la France. Long Live Hollande.”
Interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore thanked his counterpart for the French troops’ “efficiency,” which he said had allowed the north to be freed from “barbarity and obscurantism.”
Hollande was offered a young camel draped in a French flag as he toured the city.
“The women of Timbuktu will thank Francois Hollande forever,” 53-year-old Fanta Diarra Toure said. “We must tell him that he has cut down the tree, but still has to tear up its roots.”
Hollande and Traore toured Timbuktu’s 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba library for ancient manuscripts.
As they visited the site of two ancient saints’ tombs that the extremists tore down with pickaxes in July, considering them idolatrous, Hollande told the mosque’s imam: “There’s a real desire to annihilate. There’s nothing left.”
“We’re going to rebuild them, Mr President,” said Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, which is trying to assess the scale of the damage to Mali’s ancient heritage.