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France holds 'southern D-Day' commemorations

France has paid tribute to the Allied troops who launched the southern invasion of occupied France in WW2, hastening the German defeat. Tens of thousands of African soldiers were involved in the Mediterranean landing.

French President Francois Hollande (right above) on Friday led tributes to the hundreds of thousands of Allied troops who landed in the Mediterranean south of France 70 years ago to open up a second western front against the then Nazi occupiers.

Saying that the landings "changed everything," Hollande told an audience of officials and veterans in Toulon in France's southern region of Provence that the military operation was where "France liberated itself, with the support of her allies."

The so-called southern landings, involving some 450,000 troops and 881 warships, took place 10 weeks after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

'Operation Dragoon'

Described by Hitler as "the saddest day of my life," the landing on 15 August, 1944, enabled the Allies to squeeze the demoralized German 19th army in a pincer and retake the ports of Marseille and Toulon. The operation received the name "Operation Dragoon."

Toulon, Marseille and a third city, Cannes, were liberated by August 28, 1944.

D Day Toulon Flash-Galerie

Allied troops wade ashore near Toulon in 1944

The Germans retreated rapidly into the mountains, and the Allies were able to establish a supply base to support the later invasion of Germany itself.

Ten days after the southern landing, the French capital, Paris, was liberated.

African contribution

French authorities are paying special homage to the tens of thousands African troops who took part in the operation, which along with the D-Day landings led to the liberation of all of France. Fifteen African leaders were invited to Friday's events.

"By their sacrifice, these men bound our country to Africa with a bond of blood that no one can undo," Hollande said.

Most of the African troops came from Algeria and Morocco, along with some from Senegal and Pacific islands. All were French colonies at the time.

Around 240 veterans, many in their 90s, also took part in the commemorations, including around 40 from France's former colonies.

Later in the day there was to be an international ceremony on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, anchored off Toulon, along with a naval parade involving a dozen ships from former Allied powers. Organizers expect hundreds of thousands of people to take part in the celebrations, which will continue over the weekend.

Historian Jean-Marie Guillon said Operation Dragoon was "inextricably linked" to the better-known June 1944 Normandy landings, where the French army presence was significantly smaller.

tj/ipj (AFP, AP)

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