Paris - French President Francois Hollande said on Monday that France was in the phase of securing areas from where Islamists had been routed in Mali as his Nigerian counterpart warned this could not occur overnight.
Speaking exactly a month after France launched a military offensive in its former West African colony to flush out extremists holding the vast arid north, Hollande said the drive had been a huge success.
“The greater part of Malian territory has been freed, no town is occupied by a terrorist group and no networks or groups who had up until now threatened the lives of Malians are capable of launching a real offensive,” Hollande said.
“We are therefore no longer pursuing the liberation of territory but securing it,” he said, adding that an African force called AFISMA should now pick up the baton from the French troops.
France launched its operation on January 11, responding to a cry for help from Mali's interim government by sending fighter jets, attack helicopters and ground troops to battle Islamists who had seized control of the north for 10 months and were advancing into southern territory.
The campaign racked up a string of early successes as French and African troops drove the extremists from Gao, Timbuktu and the rest of the towns under their control.
But the turn to suicide attacks, landmine explosions and guerrilla fighting show the deep security problems still facing Mali - and by extension France, which is eager to wind down the operation.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said the problem was just not "how to weed out the rebels”, but beyond that, stressing that Mail's "government is weak and is not elected”.
He underscored the need to "make sure that the elections are quickly done in Mali and to build up security”.
"AFISMA will continue to be there for some time because the rebels will come back as terrorists using guerrilla tactics," he said.
"Terror groups are not groups you can overrun immediately," he said. "It's not going to be an overnight operation, it will take some time.” - Sapa-AFP