France's first lady visits Mali's war-torn north

France's first lady Valerie Trierweiler began a tour of Mali on Thursday with a visit to Gao, one of several northern cities liberated by a French-led military operation against an Islamist occupation.

President Francois Hollande's partner, on a 48-hour trip as "part of a mission for children and women", highlighted the role of female soldiers in securing the north for the former French colony as part of Operation Serval.

Wearing a shirt and beige trousers, Trierweiler accompanied her Malian counterpart Mintou Traore at the launch of a support programme for residents who had fled Gao when it was occupied last year by Al Qaeda-linked militants.

"I salute the people of Gao who have begun to return. I would also like to thank the women of Operation Serval," Trierweiler said at the ceremony, at the city's airport.

She announced that France would donate 500,000 euros ($644,000) to farmers in the Gao region, stressing "the humanitarian nature of this visit".

The rebels have largely been driven out by the French action, launched on January 11 with the Malian army and other African forces, but they continue to stage suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks, particularly in the Gao region.

Trierweiler arrived in Mali late Wednesday, saying her presence was "a very good symbol" as Hollande and Malian leader Dioncounda Traore attended a Brussels conference which raised 3.25 billion euros to help the former French colony recover from the conflict.

After the airport ceremony, the first ladies were due to visit a school and a hospital.