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Paris - France's defense minister flew to Mali in a surprise visit Thursday, as military officials in Paris said at least 100 al-Qaida-linked fighters died in a two-week campaign to oust the jihadists from a rocky desert valley that had been their key base.
The sweep by combined Chadian and French forces by air and ground in the Amettetai Valley of Ifoghas mountain range began in mid-February, and marked the bloodiest and closest-range fighting since France deployed forces eight weeks ago to Mali to help its embattled government rid its vast north of militants who ran it for months.
“In dislodging the jihadists from their last bastions, you are the spearhead of this relentless war,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told troops in Tessalit, on the north side of the Ifoghas, according to a statement from his office.
Overall, France has lost four soldiers during its campaign, while Chad lost 26 in a single assault on February 22. Hundreds of militants have died since the French swept in on January 11, according to French officials.
Radical groups holding northern Mali have been providing very little information about the fighting going on there now.
Also Thursday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio that the French military was conducting DNA tests to verify a string of reports that two top militants were killed: Abou Zeid, head of one of the most violent brigades of al-Qaida's North African franchise, and former ally Moktar Belmoktar, the alleged mastermind of a deadly hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January. Chad's president insists they died, but French officials have not confirmed that.
French officials say the fighting in the Ifoghas is continuing almost daily.
At a regular news conference Thursday in Paris, military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said French forces had confirmed at least 100 insurgent deaths from the Amettatai campaign, and troops were continuing to look for those who might have fled the area. He said five insurgents - some apparently young but whose exact ages weren't known - had surrendered to the troops in recent days.
Burkhard said most of the fighters in the valley appeared to be linked to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. To the south, in a separate theater, French troops along with troops from Mali and Niger have also been battling an affiliated militant group, MUJAO, east of Gao, the largest town in northeastern Mali. Fifty insurgents were killed in fighting in that area over the last week, he said.
The French-led operation, with a supporting military role from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, has largely been hailed as a success so far. However, there are some concerns that the militants will simply regroup once the French start drawing down troops in April and hand over security to an African-led force. From the start, France - a former colonial ruler of Mali - has said it has no intention of keeping troops in Mali for the long term.
France had originally planned on starting to draw down troops in late March, but French President Francois Hollande announced during a trip to Poland on Wednesday that the gradual pullout of France's 4,000 troops would now start in April.
Burkhard said French forces have begun planning to meet the new timetable laid out by Hollande. - Sapa-AP