France announces gradual withdrawal from Mali
CNN — France expects to begin pulling its troops out of Mali in March, the French foreign minister told the Metro newspaper.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said troops will continue operations in northern Mali, where he said "some terrorist havens remain."
His interview was published Tuesday on Metro's website and will appear in the Wednesday newspaper.
At Mali's request, France launched an offensive last month against militants in its former colony. The ground and air campaign has sent Islamist fighters who had seized the northern region fleeing into the vast desert.
Last week, French President Francois Hollande visited Timbuktu, just days after French forces had freed the fabled city from Islamist militants.
"We are serving a cause defined within the United Nations' framework ... to bring the entire Malian territory under the legitimate authority of the Malian president and then the leaders who will be elected by the Malians," Hollande said Saturday.
French troops, he said, are not in Mali to venture into politics.
"I have enough to do with French politics," he said. "So we are at the service of a mission which was defined from the call of the Malian president and within the framework of the Security Council resolutions."
The U.N. Security Council authorized a one-year military peacekeeping mission in the country in December. Members of the Economic Community of West African States pledged thousands of troops, and the Security Council urged other nations to contribute forces as well.
French-led troops now control Timbuktu and the city of Gao, along with a swath in between that was an Islamist stronghold for almost a year, the French Defense Ministry has said.
France sent troops at Mali's request after radical Islamists seized the strategic town of Konna on January 10. The town is now back under Malian control.
Islamic extremists carved out a large portion of the north last year, taking advantage of a chaotic situation after a military coup.
They banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and destroyed historic tombs and shrines in the region. World leaders feared that the al Qaeda-linked militants would turn the area into a terrorist haven.
But with the offensive sending the fighters scattering, residents are once again roaming the streets without fear.
France has 2,150 soldiers in Mali and 1,000 more troops supporting the operation from elsewhere.