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French air force strikes Mali rebels following Hollande’s visit

The French air force struck rebel sites in the far north of Mali overnight as President Francois Hollande returned to Paris following a visit to the country.

Arms depots and training camps near the Algerian border were attacked by French warplanes, Col. Thierry Burkhard, a military spokesman, said by telephone yesterday from Paris. The sorties came hours after Hollande said in the Malian capital that French troops would battle on to eradicate terrorists from the West African nation.

“Terrorism was pushed back, chased, but it hasn’t yet been vanquished,” Hollande told a jubilant crowd in Bamako. “France will stay with you as long as it takes, until the time for Africans themselves to replace us. Until then we will be beside you to the end, as far as north Mali.”

French and Malian troops have retaken most of the territory held by Islamic militants who overran the region last year. A push by insurgents to take a key government-held town last month prompted the French military move amid concern the rebels were advancing toward Bamako.

Hollande, accompanied by Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, spoke to French troops and also visited Timbuktu, where fleeing Islamic militants burned historic manuscripts before the ancient city was captured Jan. 28.

Separatist Touareg rebels and Islamic militants overran northern Mali following a March military coup in Bamako, which was prompted by soldiers who said they weren’t equipped to fight the growing insurgency. The Islamists gained dominance after clashing with the Touareg group and began implementing a strict version of Shariah law. European and U.S. officials expressed concern the region may become a haven and training ground for militant groups intent on attacking Western targets.

The French president pledged to support Mali’s economy and help with the reconstruction of public services, education, health, security and cultural heritage.

Hollande also urged citizens of the former French colony to carry out exemplary elections in July and refrain from extra-judicial recrimination against local people who had cooperated with terrorist groups. In a speech, Traore urged the population not to resort to “vengeance, hate and settling of accounts.”

France “doesn’t want to meddle in the political affairs of Mali,” Hollande said. The landlocked nation’s territorial integrity would be placed under the “legitimate authority” of Traore until elections can be held, he said.

Just before the French campaign, Malian troops killed civilians suspected of siding with Islamic militants, while the insurgents executed captured soldiers and used children as fighters, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Friday in separate statements.

Traore has said he would negotiate with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the main Touareg rebel group, provided it drops claims for a separate homeland. He rejected talks with Islamic groups such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

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