French President Francois Hollande got a hero’s welcome Saturday in the liberated northern town of Timbuktu.
Hollande’s visit marked an end to what French and Malian officials say has been a successful first phase of this now three-week French deployment to Mali.
"The terrorist groups have been weakened. They have suffered heavy losses, but have not disappeared. So, what do we have to do? We have to continue to pursue them. France will stay at Mali’s side as long as needed, meaning until Africans are ready to take over for us with the regional AFISMA force, but until then, we will be at your side, until the end, all the way to the north of Mali," he said.
Soldiers from Chad and Niger are helping Malian and French forces secure parts of the recaptured north, a vast and notoriously difficult-to-police expanse of the Sahara.
About 8,000 African troops are heading to Mali, but most are not expected at the front before the end of February. Analysts say those troops could be plunged into a nasty hit-and-run guerilla war for which neither they, nor the Malian army, are equipped or trained.