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Timbuktu cheers Hollande's visit

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 8:18 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS France's President Francois Hollande (C) is welcomed by Malian people as he arrives at Timbuktu, the second step of his one-day visit in Mali, on February 2, 2013. Hollande visits Mali as French-led troops work to secure the last Islamist stronghold in the north after a lightning offensive against the extremists. AFP PHOTO FRED DUFOURFRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

TIMBUKTU, Mali — When singer Khalima Cisse woke up Saturday, she put on her finest gold-embroidered white dress — one that she had been forbidden from wearing during the fabled city's nearly yearlong occupation by Islamist militias.

French President Francois Hollande was coming to town, less than a week after French-led forces ousted the extremists from the Saharan community known for its cultural treasures and its vibrant music.

Saturday was a day for singing and dancing, and dressing up, all of which Cisse, 57, would probably have been flogged for doing under sharia law imposed by the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Dine and its allies during their nine-month rule.

Thousands of Timbuktu residents gathered in the main square, used until recently by the zealots for public whippings and amputations, to cheer Hollande, who plunged into the crowd, beaming and clasping Malians' hands as part of a lightning-like visit.

“Last night I didn't sleep because I was ready to dance,” said one celebrant, Intaly ag Khadawei, a prominent Timbuktu dancer. “It was like a prison for me when the (Islamists) were here, because I missed dancing so much. I felt an ache in my feet, because I didn't dance in almost a year.”

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