TIMBUKTU, Mali: Like a Roman conqueror, Francois Hollande raised his palms in triumph and plunged into an ecstatic crowd in Timbuktu, grasping one hand after another as thousands of Malians hailed him as their saviour.
Only five days after French forces drove radical Islamists out of this city of winding alleys and mud mosques on the southern fringe of the Sahara, the French President arrived on Saturday and became the unlikely focus of a tumultuous welcome.
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This diminutive and bespectacled socialist does not look like a liberation leader. But in the eyes of Timbuktu's people, Mr Hollande became the man who brought freedom.
As recently as last Sunday, Timbuktu was the unofficial headquarters of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the centre of a vast domain carved out by the extremists in northern Mali.
Now it was safe enough to host a French president, thanks to Mr Hollande's decision to sanction a lightning operation that succeeded in breaking the militants' grip on the main towns of northern Mali.
''Alongside the Malians and the Africans, we have liberated this town,'' Mr Hollande told French troops at the airport. ''Today Timbuktu. Tomorrow Kidal. And others are still to come. You have accomplished an exceptional mission.''
Earnest and grave, Mr Hollande wore a sombre dark suit and a black tie, as if making a routine tour of provincial France.
But his journey into the centre of Timbuktu showed that the visit was, in the words of one of his entourage, a ''once-in-a-lifetime'' occasion.
Mr Hollande was driven to the Djingarey Ber Mosque, the oldest in Timbuktu with mud walls and slender minarets dating from 1330. A line of dignitaries, clad in flowing robes, greeted him.
One, Khalifa Cissi, gave a taste of what was to come. Wearing a tricolour around his forehead, he called out: ''Vive la France! Vive Francois Hollande!''
''We have lived through a period of fear,'' Mr Cissi said, recalling the 10-month occupation by radical Islamists. ''You could not listen to a radio; that was haram [forbidden]. Women had to stay in their homes, or they faced the whip. How can it be haram for women to leave the home? This is not our Islam.''
After leaving the mosque, Mr Hollande was taken to the central square where, thousands had gathered, many waving tricolours. In the front row stood brightly dressed and unveiled women, with braided hair falling around their shoulders. Had they appeared like that in public only six days earlier, they would have risked 100 lashes.
But now young women wore T-shirts declaring their thanks to France, and banners vied for the most effusive expressions of gratitude. ''Papa Francois Hollande,'' read one. ''The city of mysteries you have saved welcomes you! Thank you!''
Another said: ''Hello to the first citizen of France. You will live with us forever for stopping a calamity! Our Saviour!''
When Mr Hollande appeared, the crowd erupted into cheers and waved tricolours.
The French and Malian soldiers on duty assumed the President would make an orderly way through. Instead, he was caught in a whirlpool of adulation.
Having grasped the proffered hands along the front row, he was visibly overcome by the enthusiasm of his reception. Ignoring the strangled cries of his security detail, Mr Hollande plunged into the crowd. Around him gathered a maelstrom of ecstatic Malians, frantic bodyguards and bemused aides.
He soaked up the adulation, shaking every hand thrust his way. Caught in his slipstream was Dioncounda Traore, who nominally rules Mali as acting president since the military coup that ousted his predecessor. He attracted only a fraction of the adoration heaped on the leader of the former colonial power.
There were a few signs of foreboding. Mr Hollande has made clear that France's intervention will be short-lived and Mali's army, reinforced by troops from other African countries, will have responsibility for long-term stability.
Speaking later to another enthusiastic crowd in the capital, Bamako, he said France would stay ''as long as it takes, until the time for Africans themselves to replace us. Until then we will be beside you to the end, as far as north Mali.''
Mr Hollande thanked Malians for their ''exceptional welcome''.
''I have just lived through the most important day of my political life,'' he told the cheering crowds.
Many Malians view the prospect of France's withdrawal with fear and dismay.
''They have to stay here. They have to stay,'' Mustapha Traore, 27, said. ''We have security if the French soldiers are here.''
Many Malians trust French soldiers and presidents much more than their own leaders and armies. Some believe Mali would have been better off if the country, independent since 1960, had stayed under French rule.
Asked what he thought of the idea of independence, Mr Traore said simply: ''It was a mistake.''
Telegraph, London; Bloomberg