GAO, Mali (AFP) – Mali’s acting Prime Minister Diango Cissoko arrived on Thursday in the northeastern city of Gao for the first visit there by a head of government since it was overrun by Tuareg rebels more than a year ago.
The premier, who was welcomed by local worthies and military personnel, paid tribute to the French troops who intervened to liberate northern Mali from Al Qaeda-linked militias in January.
“The Malian nation will be eternally grateful,” he said.
He urged the French army, which has begun a staged withdrawal of the majority of its 4,000 troops on the ground, to “continue on this path” and stay in Mali.
Gao fell in March last year to Tuareg rebels who declared the independence of the entire desert north before losing control to armed Islamists.
French warplanes bombed parts of Gao in January to drive out fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and the city was recaptured for the Bamako government by French and Malian forces on January 26.
Just days later, the jihadists managed to infiltrate Gao where they committed the first suicide bombing in Mali’s history.
A thousand French soldiers have been conducting an operation to destroy MUJAO’s logistics infrastructure in a valley north of Gao since Sunday.