President Francois Hollande called on Africans to take over the fight against extremism as he received a rapturous welcome Saturday in Mali, where a French-led offensive has driven back Islamist rebels from the north.
The French leader's whirlwind tour came as troops worked to secure Kidal, the last bastion of radicals who seized control of Mali's desert north last year after a coup, raising fears that an area larger than France could become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
In the fabled city of Timbuktu, thousands gathered in the central square, dancing to the beat of drums -- a forbidden activity during the extremists' 10-month occupation -- to welcome the French leader with shouts of "Vive la France! Long live Hollande!"
Hollande, whose surprise decision to intervene in Mali three weeks ago made him a hero in the former French colony, told the crowd France's mission was not finished but that African countries would soon have to take over.
"It's not over yet, it's going to take several weeks, but our goal is to pass the baton," he said.
"Our African friends will be able to do the job we've been doing until now."
Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore, who joined hands with Hollande and raised them in a victory salute, thanked his counterpart for the French troops' "efficiency", which he said had allowed the north to be freed from "barbarity and obscurantism".
Hollande was offered a young camel as a gift of thanks as he toured the city.
"The women of Timbuktu will thank Francois Hollande forever," said 53-year-old Fanta Diarra Toure.
"We must tell him that he has cut down the tree but still has to tear up its roots."
Hollande and Traore visited Timbuktu's 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba library for ancient manuscripts, both targeted by destructive Islamist militants.
"There's a real desire to annihilate. There's nothing left," Hollande told the mosque's imam as they visited two ancient saints' tombs that the extremists attacked with pickaxes in July, considering them idolatrous.
"We're going to rebuild them, Mr President," said Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, which is trying to assess the scale of the damage to Mali's ancient heritage, particularly in Timbuktu, a caravan town at the edge of the Sahara that rose to fame in the 14th century as a gold and salt trading hub.
Hollande later travelled to the capital, Bamako, where he addressed a large crowd gathered at a monument commemorating Mali's independence from France.
"Terrorism has been pushed back, it has been chased away, but it has not been defeated yet," Hollande said.
-- Reprisal attacks --
With the rebels ousted from all major towns but Kidal, France is keen to hand over to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed, which the United Nations is considering turning into a formal UN peacekeeping force.
But there are warnings that Mali will need long-term help and fears that the Islamists will now wage a guerrilla campaign from the sparsely populated north.
The joy of citizens throwing off the yoke of brutal Islamist rule, under which they were denied music and television and threatened with whipping, dismemberment and execution, has been accompanied by a grim backlash against light-skinned citizens seen as supporters of the extremists.
Rights groups have reported summary executions by both the Malian army and the Islamists.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that Malian troops had shot at least 13 suspected Islamist supporters in Sevare and dumped them into wells. The Malian army has denied any crimes by its forces.
Mali's military was routed at the hands of rebel groups in the north, whose members are mostly light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs, before the French army came to its aid.
With fears of reprisal attacks high, many Arabs and Tuaregs have fled.
In all, the crisis has caused some 377,000 people to flee their homes, including 150,000 who have sought refuge across Mali's borders, according to the United Nations.
Hollande called on all troops in Mali to show "exemplary" conduct and respect human rights, an appeal echoed by Traore.
"Don't let yourselves give in to excess, to vengeance, in the euphoria of your new-won freedom. I know I can count on you not to commit any abuses, not to settle any scores," the Malian leader told the crowd at Independence Square.
The French-led campaign has met little resistance, with many of the Islamists believed to have slipped into the desert hills around Kidal.
While largely supported by the French public, the intervention has not yet paid domestic political dividends for Hollande, failing to reverse a steep slide in his approval ratings as the economy struggles.