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French troops to begin Mali withdrawal in April
French President François Hollande on Wednesday said that his country would begin withdrawing troops from Mali in April, a month later than planned, as an UN-backed African coalition force takes over.
President François Hollande said on Wednesday that France would begin pulling its troops out of Mali as of April, a month later than planned, with a handover to an UN-backed African coalition force.
The "final phase" of the French intervention in the troubled west African country "will last through March and from April there will be a decrease in the number of French soldiers in Mali as African forces will take over, supported by the Europeans," Hollande said during a visit to Warsaw for a six-nation European Union defence summit.
The president also said that a military campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali had killed "terrorist leaders", without clarifying whether he was referring to two al Qaeda commanders reported dead last week.
"We have launched an offensive in two directions, the first in the Ifoghas mountain range, and there we have had successes that will be further confirmed in the coming days, including the killing of terrorist leaders," he said.
Chad has said that its soldiers, fighting alongside the French, have killed two top commanders from al Qaeda's north African wing (AQIM), Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, but Paris has so far said it could not confirm the reports.
Hollande’s comments came as another French soldier was killed in Mali, the fourth French military death since the launch of operations in the country on January 11.
The presidency said in a statement that the soldier, with the 68th African Artillery Regiment based in Valbonne, had died in combat early Wednesday in eastern Mali, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the northern city of Gao.
In the statement, Hollande paid homage to "the sacrifice of this soldier who carried out his mission to free Mali of terrorist groups with courage and devotion."
France has suffered relatively few casualties during its operations in Mali, launched to back up Malian forces against Islamist rebels who seized control of the country's vast desert north last year.
On Saturday, a paratrooper was killed during an operation to flush out militants from the Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali.
A legionnaire with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment was killed amid heavy clashes on February 19 and a helicopter pilot died at the very start of the operation.
The French-led intervention quickly ousted the rebels from the north's main cities and fighting has intensified in recent days as efforts focus on hunting down the militants in mountainous areas.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)