TIMBUKTU, Mali: 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 potential pending withdrawal, floated by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in a newspaper interview published Tuesday night, came as forces from France and Chad secured a key bastion in northern Mali, the city of Kidal.
French aircraft and troops also are targeting suspected hideouts of Islamist fighters in the sparsely populated 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. Al-Qaida-linked extremists had seized the north of the country.
The French foreign minister is quoted in France’s Metro newspaper as saying, “I think that starting in March, if everything goes as planned, the number of our troops should diminish.”
France has some 4,000 troops in Mali as of Tuesday, a French military official said. That’s about the same number as France had at the height of its 11-year military presence in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, international officials said Tuesday they are discussing the possibility of using a U.N. force to provide long-term security in Mali so that a political transition can take place. Any such decision would have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council.
The current African-led support mission to Mali might be transformed into a U.N. force, said Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, president of the commission of the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS.