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French troops may start pulling out of their anti-extremist operation in Mali as early as next month, handing over to a still-developing African force, the French foreign minister was quoted as saying.
The potential pending withdrawal, floated by Laurent Fabius in a newspaper interview published last night, came as forces from France and Chad secured a key bastion in northern Mali, the city of Kidal.
French aircraft and troops have also targeted suspected hideouts of Islamist fighters in the Saharan desert. There are fears that the extremists, who have fled Mali’s cities during the three-week French-led operation, could try to stage attacks from remote bases.
The French foreign minister was quoted as saying: “I think that starting in March, if everything goes as planned, the number of our troops should diminish.”
Fabius stressed that terrorist threats remained and that the fight was not over yet, but that ultimately Africans and Malians needed to take responsibility for the region’s security.
There were about 4 000 French troops in Mali as of Tuesday, a military official said. That’s about the same number as France had at the height of its 11-year military presence in Afghanistan.
France launched the Mali operation last month to drive back al-Qaeda-linked extremists who had seized the north of the country, imposing harsh rule on local populations, and had started pushing towards Mali’s capital. The French government fears the region could become a haven for international terrorists.
As French troops focus farther north, they are already expected to start handing control of the city of Timbuktu to African forces this week.
About 3 800 forces from other African states were in Mali backing up the weak Malian army, the official said. But it remains far from clear African forces are ready to take full responsibility against the Islamic extremists,.
The spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu, Captain Samba Coulibaly, said there was no reason for the population to fear the withdrawal of French troops.
“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 in Timbuktu and Sevare. They control this entire zone and can intervene within minutes in order to carry out air strikes as needed.”
In a sign of normalcy, the mayor’s office of Timbuktu announced that it would open for the first time in 10 months today said the city’s mayor Ousmane Halle.
“The city is now secure. There are ongoing patrols by French and Malian soldiers, and we no longer have any reason to fear an attack by the Islamists,” he said.
However, the conflict may go on for a long time, warned a high-ranking Algerian security official, based in the vast Sahara bordering Mali.
“The war risks being long and the terrorist groups could use the same strategy used by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan against US forces, notably suicide attacks and surprise attacks targeting French and Malian troops,” said the security officer “While the French and Malian forces easily chased the terrorists out of the Malian cities like Gao and Kidal, it will be more difficult for them to dislodge them from the mountains in the north of Mali.” – Sapa-AP