French president to visit Mali this weekend

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

In the latest blow to militants, the French military said Wednesday it has seized the airport in Kidal, the last major town under rebel control in northern Mali.

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.

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.

Mali’s former colonial power, France, is leading the offensive in the north.

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 its troops at Mali’s request after the Islamists seized the strategic town of Konna on January 10. The town is back under Malian control.

Islamic extremists carved out a large portion in northern Mali 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 once again roamed 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.