France to begin pulling troops out of Mail next month
France has said it will begin pulling its troops out of Mali from next month, but continuing air raids and sporadic clashes with jihadist rebels underlined the challenge facing the international effort to restore security in the country.
French-led forces have retaken control of key towns occupied since last year by Islamist rebels, but fighting has continued in recent days on the outskirts of Gao and in Mali's northern mountains.
"There were clashes yesterday at Gao because from the moment where our forces, supported by the Malian forces, started undertaking missions and patrols around the towns we had taken, we encountered jihadist groups that fought," French defence minister Jean Yves Le Drian told French radio.
"It's a real war. Every night now, even last night, the French forces are targeting and hitting the training centres and truck depots of the jihadist groups." He said French-led forces had killed several hundred Islamist militants over the month-long conflict, although this could not be independently confirmed. A helicopter pilot who lost his life in the first days of the war remains the only French fatality.
Despite the ongoing hostilities, Paris intends to begin withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali next month, leaving it to an African force to take over the pursuit of retreating jihadists into their desert redoubts.
"The Africans and Malians themselves will have to be guarantors of the security, territorial integrity and sovereignty of this country," foreign minister Laurent Fabius said.
He said France would begin to hand over the operation to the African-led troops next month "if everything goes as expected". Some 3,800 African troops have already arrived in Mali to bolster the drive against insurgents, with almost half crossing from Chad and heading towards the remote northern town of Kidal.
Kidal presents the French with a delicate dilemma. The Tuareg MNLA, which seeks autonomy for parts of the north, says it controls the town and has pledged its support to French forces in rooting out Islamist fighters who have fled the air strikes.
France has urged the Malian government to negotiate with the MNLA on the country's political future if it drops its demands for full independence for the north, but the idea is viewed warily in the capital, Bamako.
Mali's armed forces are still smarting from their defeat in last year's northern Tuareg rebellion that triggered a coup in Bamako and was later hijacked by jihadists.
The MNLA has started its own patrols in the remote regions around the Algerian border, where Islamist fighters are believed to be holding seven French citizens hostage. It announced this week it had arrested two senior Islamists fleeing to Algeria.
France wants a United Nations peacekeeping force eventually to be deployed in Mali.