France to start withdrawing troops from Mali in March
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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday that France plans to begin pulling troops out of Mali in March and in the meantime will continue to focus on flushing out Islamist militant havens in the north of the country.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday that while France plans to begin pulling troops out of Mali in March, military operations in the country will continue to focus on driving Islamist militants out of the country’s desert north.
Malian and French troops clashed with Islamist militants near Mali’s northern city of Gao, France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday.
French-led forces captured Gao from Islamist control in January, in what was hailed as a major military success in the battle to retake the country’s north.
Drian also said that hundreds of militants had been killed since France’s intervention in Mali began three weeks ago.
“We will continue to act in the north where some terrorist havens remain,” he said in an interview for Wednesday’s Metro newspaper.
“I think that from March, if everything goes according to plan, the number of French troops should fall.”
Fance has deployed nearly 4,000 ground troops, as well as warplanes and armoured vehicles in its three-week-old Operation Serval that has broken the Islamist militants’ 10-month grip on northern towns.
It is now due to gradually hand over to a UN-backed African force of some 8,000 troops, known as AFISMA, of which around 3,800 have already been deployed.
Paris and its allies want to prevent the Islamists from using Mali’s desert north as a base to launch attacks on neighbouring African countries and the West.
“The narco-terrorist groups have been stopped thanks to our strikes,” Fabius said. But there can still be individual acts. We have to stay on our guard.”
France’s military intervention first began on January 11 in an effort to help regain control of Islamist-held territory in northern Mali. Since operations started, French forces have pushed farther north, gradually moving out of cities and towns taken earlier in the campaign.
With French troops expected to hand over control of Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu to African forces later this week, Malian military spokesperson Capt. Samba Coulibaly said there is no reason to worry about the transition.
“With the size of the force we have here right now, we can maintain security in the town of Timbuktu,” he said. “The departure of the French soldiers does not scare us, especially since their air force will still be present both in Timbuktu and Sevare. They control this entire zone and can intervene within a matter of minutes in order to carry out air strikes as needed.”
(FRANCE 24 with wires)