The security situation in Northern Mali has improved with the arrival of the French military last month, so French president Francois Hollande traveled there Saturday for a one-day visit. He didn't stay in the southern capital, Bamako, which has remained under Malian government control, but instead flew north to the ancient city of Timbuktu to meet residents and thank French troops for their work in ousting Islamist rebels from the historic city.
City residents greeted the French leader with cries of "Vive la France," and "Vive Francois Hollande," reports the BBC, which says Hollande's reception was "rapturous." It was a startling scene, given that France was Mali's colonial occupier until 1960, when Mali gained its independence.
Hollande visited a historic mosque and then the renowned Ahmed Baba Institute, where retreating militants burned some 2,000 priceless manuscripts, possibly out of spite. As Greg reported earlier this week, it appears that Timbuktu residents had previously smuggled many documents out of the ancient library, saving thousands of them from the militants' destruction.
French troops liberated Timbuktu less than a week ago, reclaiming Northern Malian cities that had been controlled by militants. Hollande reiterated on Saturday that France is prepared to cede control of the next stage of the fight to an African force, led by Mali and made up of troops from several countries. But that may not be so easy. Rudolph Atallah of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, told NPR's All Things Considered that the militants had been already preparing to fight a guerrilla war before the French came:
"So some of them have fled into the hills, into the northeast quadrant of Mali, some have fled probably across the border into Algeria, and some have gone westward toward Mauritania. So they're — they've atomized themselves in the region. Now as France draws down or pulls back and the African-led intervention force remains, we may see an uptick of insurgency-type operations against these forces."
Atallah says the intervention force may include troops from Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, countries that have had clashes between ethnic groups in their countries, as Mali has had with the ethnic Tuareg fighters. Tuaregs initially joined the Islamists to fight Malian troops but Islamists later dominated the rebellion. Atallah says as the fighting in Mali quiets down, there could be similar ethnic uprisings in neighboring countries.
Reuters is reporting today that four people, including a French citizen, were killed in a clash in Senegal, Mali's eastern neighbor. It isn't clear why the French national was killed, but the report says the fighting appears to be part of long-standing efforts by rebels against the Senegalese government.
As Mali takes the lead in the fight, the country's military is facing charges of war crimes. Human Rights Watch released a report Friday accusing Malian soldiers of abducting and executing suspected Islamist supporters; the organization also says Mali is using child soldiers in battle. The group is demanding that Mali investigate immediately and bring perpetrators to justice.