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French president to visit Mali this weekend

From Saskya Vandoorne, CNN
updated 7:33 AM EST, Fri February 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In addition to major cities, Francois Hollande plans to visit the historical city of Timbuktu
  • Timbuktu, once overrun by militants, is now under control of Malian forces
  • The French-led offensive to flush out militants in northern Mali started on January 10

(CNN) -- French President Francois Hollande will travel to Mali on Saturday, where his nation's troops have been battling Islamist militants for three weeks alongside African forces.

Hollande will be accompanied by his defense and foreign ministers, the president's office said in a statement Friday.

READ: Mali plans July elections as it makes gains in battle against militants

In addition to major cities, he will also visit the historical city of Timbuktu, which French and Malian troops seized from militants who had controlled it since last year.

His office did not provide any other details.

Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks. Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks.
Photos: Mali military battles Islamist insurgents
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Photos: Fighting Islamists in Mali Photos: Fighting Islamists in Mali
Suspected Islamists attacked in Gao
France to hand Mali war to Africans
Preserving Timbuktu's treasures
What led to Mali's disintegration?

READ: French military says troops control airport in key Malian city

The visit comes as troops make major gains in the battle to push out militants in northern Mali.

France, Mali's former colonial power, is leading the offensive after militants captured the vast northern desert region, raising fears they would turn it into a haven for terrorists.

French-led troops now control the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, along with a swath in between that was an Islamist stronghold for almost a year, the French Defense Ministry said.

READ: French president on military offensive: 'We are winning in Mali'

France sent troops at Mali's request after Islamists seized the strategic town of Konna on January 10. The town is now back in Malian control.

Islamic extremists carved out a large portion of the north last year, taking advantage of a chaotic situation after a military coup.

They banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and destroyed historic tombs and shrines in the region.

But with the French-led offensive sending the militants on the run, residents are once again roaming the streets without fear.

READ: What's behind the instability in Mali?

France has 2,150 soldiers in Mali and 1,000 more troops supporting the operation from elsewhere. West African forces are expected to battle the militants alongside French troops.

NATO said it does not plan to join the offensive.

"The United Nations Security Council has decided that it should be an African-led mission," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general. "And this is also a reason why I don't see a role for NATO as an organization in Mali or in the region. But obviously, I welcome that individual NATO allies have taken action and decided to support the French operation in Mali."

Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore has said his nation will hold elections by the end of July.

READ: U.S. steps up involvement in Mali

CNN's Sarah Jones contributed to this report.

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