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MALI-REBELS-HOLLANDE:French president visits Mali to support French troops
TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande arrived in Mali on Saturday on a one-day visit to support French troops fighting a campaign against Islamist rebels in the Sahel nation.
Hollande, accompanied by his ministers for defence, foreign affairs and development, flew into Sevare in central Mali, French TV channels said.
He was due to go on to Timbuktu, the famed Saharan trading town which was recaptured from the rebels on Sunday.
The French leader was expected to outline the next phase of the mission for the French forces, which in a three-week intervention launched at Mali's request have pushed the Islamist fighters into the desert and mountains of the remote northeast.
Hollande has said that the French operation, which has 3,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali backed by warplanes, helicopters and armoured vehicles, wants to hand over to a larger U.N.-backed African force which is still being deployed.
Sustained French airstrikes have forced fighters from the Islamist militant alliance that was occupying northern Mali to retreat into the remote Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border. The rebels are also believed to be holding there seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.
In their three-week offensive, the French forces recaptured last weekend, with little resistance from the rebels, the two main towns in northern Mali, Gao and the fabled ancient city of Timbuktu.
(Reporting by David Lewis; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)
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