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BAMAKO (AFP) – Leaders from across Africa and France arrived in Mali on Thursday for the inauguration of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in front of thousands of supporters as the nation entered a new era of democracy after months of political chaos.
Idriss Deby of Chad, the Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara and Moroccan king Mohammed VI were prominent guests among 26 heads of state invited to welcome Mali's new leader, elected by a landslide on August 11, and enjoy military parades and cultural displays.
But French President Francois Hollande was expected to take centre stage at the 55,000-seat March 26 Stadium in the capital Bamako, with the ceremony drawing a line under military action launched by Paris in January to oust armed Islamists from northern Mali.
Hollande was due to deliver a speech inviting Malians to "turn a new page after a difficult period that put the country on the edge of the abyss", aides said.
"A new page is opening, it is for the Malians to write and France will be at their side," he was expected to say.
The ceremony was to start with Hollande and Keita standing before the Malian flag for the national anthem around 11:00 am (1100 GMT) but the programme was running behind schedule.
Keita pledged to unite Mali and end endemic corruption as he was sworn in on September 4 to lead the deeply-divided west African nation's emergence from months of political crisis sparked by a military coup in March last year.
"I will not forget for a moment that you put me where I am to take care of all aspects of the life of our nation. National reconciliation remains the most urgent priority," he said after taking the oath to preserve the constitution, democracy and the rule of law.
Army officers angry at the level of support they had received to combat a separatist Tuareg rebellion in the north overthrew the democratically-elected government of president Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22, 2012.
In the chaos that followed, the Tuareg seized control of an area larger than France before being ousted by Al-Qaeda-linked groups who imposed a brutal interpretation of Islamic law on the local population, carrying out amputations and executions.
Their actions drew worldwide condemnation and prompted France to launch a military offensive at Mali's behest to oust the Islamists.
The country's return to relative stability paved the way for Keita to emerge as Mali's new leader in presidential elections deemed the most successful since the country gained independence from France in 1960 and has allowed Paris to begin withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent in.
The son of a civil servant, Keita was born in 1945 in the southern industrial city of Koutiala, the declining heartland of cotton production.
His election in the first presidential polls since 2007 was seen as crucial for unlocking more than $4 billion in aid promised by international donors who halted contributions in the wake of last year's coup.
His daunting workload over the coming months will include tackling an economy battered by political chaos and war, as well as healing ethnic divisions in the north and managing the return of 500,000 people who fled an Islamist insurgency.
Corruption has tainted government institutions and the military in Mali since independence and the country remains in the bottom third of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
A 2012 report by the Washington-based think-tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Foundation spoke of "state complicity with organised crime" as the main factor enabling the rise of armed Islamist rebel groups in the north.
The return to democracy has been praised by Hollande, who was accompanied by four senior ministers and is expected to hold talks with Keita on security, reconciliation, economic recovery and the fight against corruption during his visit.
Hollande's entourage said he would also hold a mini-summit on the security situation in the Central African Republic with the leaders of Gabon, Chad and Cameroon, the main contributors to an African Union force in the CAR, occupied by rebels since March.