France close to securing Mali, eyes March pullout


French-led forces have killed hundreds of militants in fighting to reclaim northern Mali and, with the rebels’ last bastion secured, France said Tuesday it will begin withdrawing troops in March.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the 26-day military intervention had killed “several hundred” militants as its air and ground forces chased them from their northern strongholds into remote mountainous terrain in the far northeast, near the Algerian border.

The Defense Ministry said the militants died in French airstrikes on vehicles transporting fighters and equipment, and in “direct combat” in the key central and northern towns of Konna and Gao.

France’s sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot killed at the start of the military operation.

Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded after the battle at Konna last month, but has not since released a new death toll.

The Malian Army took “some prisoners, not many, who will have to answer to Malian courts and to international justice,” Le Drian said, adding that some of those detained were high-ranking militants.

France expects to begin withdrawing its soldiers from Mali “starting in March, if all goes as planned,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the Metro daily newspaper in an interview published Wednesday. “France has no intention of remaining in Mali for the long term. It is up to the Africans and to the Malians themselves to guarantee the country’s security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

While asserting that the “narcoterrorists have been stopped,” France’s top diplomat stressed “there could always be individual actions” and that all players must remain on guard, as “the risk is always present.”

Nearly 4,000 French troops are currently deployed in Mali, and the former colonial ruler is keen to hand over the operation to African forces amid warnings the militants could now launch a prolonged insurgency.

The French Defense Ministry said Kidal — the last town to fall of those seized by al-Qaida-linked fighters who occupied northern Mali for 10 months — was now under the control of France’s forces and some 1,800 Chadian troops. The rebels have fled to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif around Kidal, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves where they are believed to be holding seven French hostages.

One of the militant groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, said it had attacked military positions in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali — a claim denied by west African forces.