France's Francois Hollande to visit Mali

People hold a sign reading "Long live Francois Hollande" in Ansongo, northern Mali, 29 January 2013 Francois Hollande is to visit northern areas recaptured from rebels

France's President Francois Hollande is to visit Mali, where three weeks of targeted French air strikes have forced Islamist militants to retreat.

Mr Hollande will fly into Bamako to meet interim President Dioncounda Traore, his office says.

He is set to visit Timbuktu, recently seized from Islamist rebels by French and Malian troops, on Saturday.

The French military intervention has recaptured large parts of northern Mali from Islamist groups.

French troops are currently securing Kidal, the last major town which was occupied by militants who had controlled much of the northern part of the former French colony since a coup last year.

Mr Hollande will be joined on his trip by Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canin.

Mali crisis timeline

  • October 2011: Ethnic Tuaregs launch new rebellion after returning with weapons from Libya, where they had fought for Gaddafi
  • March 2012: Military officers depose President Amadou Toumani Toure over handling of rebellion
  • April 2012: Tuareg and Islamist fighters seize control of northern Mali, declare independence
  • June 2012: Islamist groups capture Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao from Tuaregs, start to destroy Muslim shrines that offend their puritan views
  • September 2012: Islamist rebels seize town of Douentza, crossing into central Mali and threatening government-held south
  • January 2013: Islamist fighters capture central town of Konna, raising fears they could march on capital. President Dioncounda Traore asks France for help. French intervention begins.

Earlier, Mr Le Drian said the jihadists had now scattered, marking a "turning-point" in France's intervention.

For a president whose popularity was waning, so often criticised for his indecisiveness, the intervention in Mali has been a welcome success, says the BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris.

The president has been rewarded with a slight bump in the polls but the question is what should happen next, our correspondent says.

French polls suggest the public only have patience for a limited operation: Eradicating the Islamist threat entirely is a bridge too far.

The president's objective is to prepare to hand over the towns the French-led troops have captured to an African force that has begun to deploy to Mali, and create enough stability to facilitate new elections by July.

So far about 2,000 African soldiers, mainly from Chad and Niger, are on the ground in Mali.

On Thursday, French military spokesman Col Thierry Burkhard said a column of 1,400 troops from Chad was heading towards Kidal from the Niger border.

It will be the job of the African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma), to root out the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents that have fled into the desert and mountains further north.

The Tuareg rebels launched the insurgency in October 2011 before falling out with the Islamist militants.

The Islamist fighters extended their control of the vast north of Mali in April 2012, in the wake of a military coup.

France launched a military operation this month after the Islamist militants appeared to be threatening the south.

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