Hollande says war on terror won in Mali

Sep 19, 2013, 10:53 AM EDT
French President Francois Hollande listens to a speech by Palestine's authority president following their meeting on September 12, 2013 at the Elysee palace in Paris.
AFP/Getty Images
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French President Francois Hollande declared Thursday that the war on terror had been won in the West African nation of Mali, listing the towns that French and Malian troops had liberated from al-Qaida's local fighters earlier this year.
Hollande spoke before more than a dozen heads of state at inauguration festivities for Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who won the election that the French urged Mali to hold only months after radical jihadists had been largely ousted from power in northern Mali.
"We have won this war; we have chased out the terrorists; we have secured the north and finally ... we have, you have organized an uncontested election and the winner is now the president of Mali," Hollande told the crowd gathered at a sports stadium in the Malian capital.
Keita formally took the oath of office two weeks ago as was required by the country's constitution. On Thursday, Malians in their finest suits and traditional gowns poured into a sports stadium for the festivities, fanning themselves with programs in the heat and shading themselves with umbrellas.
Keita entered the stadium standing in the back of a military jeep draped in Malian flags, wearing a yellow sash accented in the other colors of the national flag — red and green. Throngs of soldiers ran alongside his vehicle, holding hands to form a barricade against well-wishers approaching him.
Hollande, whose country led the international military intervention to oust the radical jihadists from northern Mali, was the first world leader to congratulate Keita at the ceremony, where schoolchildren sang the national anthem.
"It's a huge victory for Mali that we celebrate today, a victory that started when Konna was liberated, when Diabaly was liberated, when Gao was liberated, when Timbuktu was liberated and when finally Kidal was liberated," Hollande said to thunderous applause.
Several radical Islamic militant groups were able to seize control of northern Mali in the aftermath of a March 2012 coup in the distant capital of Bamako. Once in power, they instituted their harsh interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, meting out amputations and whippings as punishments and forcing women to wear the veil in public.
As they threatened to push further south, France launched a military operation in January that was joined by soldiers from a number of neighboring countries. It took months longer, though, for the Malian military to return to Kidal, where a secular separatist rebel movement deeply opposes their presence.
The French-led war, though, was largely welcomed in the southern capital of Bamako as the instability in the north brought Mali to brink of ruin.
Keita emerged from a field of 28 candidates to overwhelming win the August presidential runoff election, taking nearly 78 percent of the vote in the second round. Many voters said they believed he was the best person to resolve the lingering tensions in the north, where separatist ethnic Tuareg rebels still largely control Kidal. Talks with the group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad are set to begin within two months' time.
While in Bamako, Hollande and African leaders are also expected to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Central African Republic, where the rebels who ousted the president six months ago are accused of killing scores of civilians and carrying out other atrocities.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
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