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Armed Conflict

Hollande in Mali to visit French troops, discuss handover

French President Francois Hollande is in Mali, where his troops have helped push back rebels who had taken control of the north of the country. The visit comes three weeks after his decision to intervene in the conflict.

On Saturday, the French head of state flew in to the central town of Savare, where he was met by Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore.

Hollande, who is being accompanied on the trip by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, was also to visit French troops in Timbuktu, one of the cities they have liberated from Islamist militants over the past few days.

"I am going to Mali to express to our soldiers all our support, encouragement and pride," Hollande told reporters on Friday, before leaving for Mali. "I'm also going to ensure that African forces come and join us as quickly as possible and to tell them we need them for this international force."

Hollande was expected to use a meeting with Traore in the capital, Bamako, later in the day to discuss plans to hand over command of the military operation to an all-African force.

The president's decision three weeks ago to respond to a call for help from Bamako by sending in French combat troops has been met with widespread approval. However, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned on Friday that while French troops had been “much faster” to liberate northern Mali, than Washington had expected, the battle was far from over.

"They have made tremendous progress; I give them a lot of credit," Panetta told the AFP news agency. "But the challenge now is to make sure that you can maintain that security and that you are not overstretched and that, ultimately, as you begin to pull back, that the other African nations are prepared to move in and fill the gap of providing security.”

Hollande's visit also came as human rights groups reported allegations of summary killings by both Islamist fighters and Malian government forces.

Mali's military has denied any wrongdoing by its soldiers.

Tuareg and Islamist rebels seized northen Mali in the wake of an ill-fated coup last March. Ironically, the leaders of the military coup said they had launched the putsch because they were unhappy with how the government was handling an existing insurgency in the north. The rebels used a power vacuum created by the coup to take control of vast swathes of territory within a matter of days.

pfd/mkg (AFP, dpa, Reuters)