Hollande vows to restore Mali sovereignty within 'days'
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French President François Hollande said Wednesday that the sovereignty of "almost the entire territory" of Mali would be restored in "a few days", as France prepared to wind down an intervention to drive Islamists from the north of the country.
Mali’s sovereignty over almost all of its territory will be restored within “a few days”, French President François Hollande promised in Paris on Wednesday as France’s troops prepared to pull out of a military operation to drive Islamist rebels from the north of the country.
The announcement came as Paris scrambled to verify a claim by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda’s North African branch, that it had executed a French hostage in retaliation for France’s intervention in the west African nation.
A Malian soldier was killed and six other people injured in a suicide car bombing at the airport in the northern town of Timbuktu overnight, a spokesman for Mali's army said on Thursday.
It was the first suicide attack in Timbuktu since French and Malian forces drove al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants from the ancient trading town nearly two months ago.
“In the last phase where we are, almost the entire territory will return to Mali’s sovereignty in a few days,” Hollande said during a dinner with representatives of France’s Jewish community.
US praises ‘active’ French leadership
Hollande’s comments came shortly after his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told parliament that French troops would begin pulling out of Mali “as of the end of April”.
Meanwhile, new US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel praised the French operation during a phone call with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, thanking Paris for its “active leadership”, officials said.
France sent troops to Mali on January 11 to prevent Islamists in the north from pushing south to the capital Bamako.
After initial hesitation, the United States supported the French-led action with logistical aid that included transport planes, surveillance drones and fuel for tankers.
But France’s actions have made its nationals targets for Islamist militants in the region.
On Tuesday, an alleged spokesman for AQIM told Mauritania’s ANI news that a French hostage had been executed in Mali on March 10 “in response to France’s intervention in northern Mali”.
“French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages,” the spokesman said.
The French foreign ministry said it was trying to verify the report.
‘We will do everything to free our hostages’
In all, 15 French nationals – including the hostage that was allegedly executed on March 10 - are being held captive in Africa, with AQIM claiming responsibility for six of the kidnappings.
“We will do everything to free our hostages,” Ayrault told parliament on Wednesday.
France has more than 4,000 troops on the ground in Mali, 1,200 of whom are currently deployed in the northeast, carrying out “clean-up” operations after driving out most of the Islamist rebels from the area.
Five French soldiers have died in combat since the start of the operations.
Hollande had already said he planned to scale back the French military presence in the former colony starting next month, with the aim of turning over responsibility to Malian troops and an African stabilisation force.
There are still pockets of resistance in some areas, such as the main northern city of Gao, which have witnessed stray attacks and suicide bombings since the Islamists fled.
The French troops in the region are backed up by African forces. Soldiers from Chad, whose experience and training has made them crucial n the French-led offensive, have also suffered casualties with at least 26 deaths.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)