BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Malian authorities held a traditional military parade Thursday to make the country's first independence day celebration since French troops departed after nine years of fighting Islamic extremists in its one-time colony.
The festivities, featuring fighter planes flying overhead, came as Mali faces growing condemnation for detaining 46 soldiers from neighboring Ivory Coast who had deployed to provide security for a company contracted by the United Nations.
Malians sang the country's anthem in the streets of Bamako while others played drums. Wearing the red, green and yellow colors of the Malian flag, Souadou Diabate clutched a photo of Col. Assimi Goita, who seized power in Mali two years ago in a coup and has facing mounting international isolation.
“It is in difficult times that great nations are built,” she said. “Mali is a country of patriots and valiant soldiers.”
In his address to the nation on the eve of Independence Day, Goita laid out his vision for foreign relations.
“Our country is concerned about strengthening its relations with all other countries and participating actively in international life," he said. "But it is important that our partners understand that relations with our state must henceforth be based on the following three principles: respect for Mali’s sovereignty, respect for the strategic choices made by Mali, and the defense of the interests of the Malian people in making specific decisions."
The departure of the last 2,400 French troops from Mali created widespread concern the withdrawal would pave the way for Islamic insurgents to step up their attacks against civilians. Observers question whether the Malian military is capable of protecting towns across the north, which fell under the control of Islamic extremists from 2012 until the French-led military operation started a year later.
Furthering the doubts, a Malian general who has led efforts to fight extremist groups in the Menaka region recently released an audio urging civilians to flee the countryside for the protection of larger communities.
“I ask all those who are in the Djebock area to leave the countryside and go to the cities to be safe. For the moment, this is the solution that must be adopted,” Gen. Alhadj Gamou said in a message directed at the largely nomadic Tuareg community.
Frustration with the attacks initially helped fuel support for Goita, the coup leader, as his junta assured Malians it would do a better job of beating back the insurgents.
Tensions between Goita and the international community have increased, with France deciding to move its forces in Mali to a more welcoming neighbor, Niger.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.
Baba Ahmed, The Associated Press