Malians celebrate, French-led forces clear Timbuktu
Residents of Mali's northern town of Gao, captured from sharia-observing Islamist rebels by French and Malian troops, danced in the streets to drums and music on Sunday as the French-led offensive also drove the rebels from Timbuktu.
The weekend gains made at Gao and Timbuktu by the French and Malian troops capped a two-week whirlwind intervention by France in its former Sahel colony, which has driven al Qaeda-allied militant fighters northwards into the desert and mountains.
In Gao, the largest town in the north where the Islamist insurgents had banned music and smoking, cut off the hands of thieves and ordered women to wear veils, thousands cheered the liberating troops with shouts of "Mali, Mali, France, France".
French special forces backed by Rafale fighter jets and Tiger helicopters had helped capture the town early on Saturday.
Among the celebrating Gao crowds, many smoked cigarettes, women went unveiled and some men wore shorts to flout the severe sharia Islamic law the rebels had imposed for months. Youths on motorcycles flew the flags of Mali, France and Niger, whose troops also helped secure the ancient town on the Niger River.
"Now we can breathe freely," said Hawa Toure, 25, wearing a colorful traditional African robe banned under sharia for being too revealing. "We are as free as the wind today. We thank all of our friends around the world who helped us," she said.
French and Malian troops also arrived at the weekend at the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu, more than 300 km (190 miles) to the west of Gao, and were working to restore government control over the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Malian military source said the French and Malian troops had met no resistance up to the gates of Timbuktu and controlled the airport. They were working on flushing out any Islamist rebel fighters still hiding in the city, a labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes between alleys.
"Timbuktu is delicate, you can't just go in like that," the source, who asked not to be named, said.
A third northern town, the Tuareg seat of Kidal, in Mali's rugged and remote northeast, remains in rebel hands.
The United States and Europe are backing the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launch pad for international attacks.