Mali conflict: Elated Timbuktu residents hail Hollande

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Media captionTimbuktu crowds chant "Hollande is our hero"

At first it looked as though President Hollande's triumphant visit to Timbuktu was going to be something of an anti-climax: Fierce security, a huge scrum of French journalists, a half-empty town, and only a handful of local dignitaries lining up politely in the shade outside the mud walls of the ancient mosque to welcome and thank him.

But then the presidential convoy moved deeper into Timbuktu, swung up a sandy road towards the main square and suddenly, there they all were: A rapturous crowd of perhaps 3,000 people, dancing, drumming, singing, holding placards and craning their necks for a glimpse of the man they credit with liberating the ancient town from months of brutal occupation by Islamist militants.

"It's the best welcome - to our soldiers and to France," a grinning President Hollande told the BBC as he plunged into the throng in suit and tie, a diminutive figure almost swamped by locals, cameramen, and French and Malian security guards.

The crowd was a raucous blaze of colours - the women delighted to be free of the black veils demanded by the militants, and now proudly wearing their finest dresses.

Vive la France!

"Look at me, am I not beautiful?" asked Omou Cice, 20, lifting a brightly embroidered scarf and twirling in the sand in front of her cheering friends. "This is freedom. This is what the French did for us."

Nearby, a teenage boy and girl hugged each other and giggled.

"We want the French to stay for two years," said a man in the crowd.

"No, three months is enough," said another.

"They have done their job and can leave now. Our own army should take over," said his neighbour.

President Hollande, determined to enjoy the moment and not be drawn into the details of France's exit strategy, said French troops would be here "as long as needed. Until the handover is completed".

Beside him, struggling to maintain his composure, Mali's interim President Diouncounda Traore, welcomed Mr Hollande's brief visit to Timbuktu.

"It shows how much France is determined to go all the way side by side with Mali. We ask France to continue with us," he said.

Image caption Timbuktu women were free of the black veils demanded by the militants

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