BAMAKO, Feb. 6 (Xinhua)
French soldiers clashed with armed rebels near Gao in northern Mali on Tuesday after the coalition forces of French and Malian troops had recaptured the major towns in their battle against the al-Qaida backed Islamist groups in the west African
country, military sources and locals said.
France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le
Drian confirmed the clashes in Paris on
Wednesday and said it was an indication that “a real war” occurred in Mali. “Yesterday there was a confrontation with some Islamists near Gao at a time when our soldiers who were being supported by the Malian forces were patrolling the towns that we have captured,” the French defense minister said.
The town of Gao was recaptured by the
French forces who were supported by the Malian and other African troops. He said a residual group of the rebels fired rocket-launchers in Gao region.”Therefore there’s a real war. It’s a war
which today has enabled us to identify
the hide-outs of the Islamists and we
shall pursue them,” Le Drian added. After several months of diplomatic
negotiation, France decided on Jan. 11 to intervene in Mali after the rebel groups captured the town of Konna in the Central region and were heading towards the capital, Bamako. France has deployed 4,000 soldiers to Mali.
The Economic Community of West
African States (ECOWAS) members as well as some other African nations have
pledged to dispatch anonther 4,000 to
support the Malian government to regain ruling to the northern region that was under the rebels’ control. But the French defense minister said Wednesday that the French troops have
reached the maximum. “We have 4,000
soldiers and we shall not go beyond that. But we shall start reducing them so that the African troops can take over,” the minister said when he spoke on Europe 1 station. “With 4,000 French and 4,000 African troops, we shall progressively start to hand over to African soldiers very soon,” he added.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius
said in an interview with Le Metro daily
newspaper that the French soldiers may
start withdrawing from Mali as early as
March. “I think that as early as from March, if everything goes according to plan, there will be a reduction of the number of French troops,” he affirmed. However, Le Drian clarified in his radio
interview that “the French soldiers will
continue remaining in Mali until the
country regains its territorial integrity
and sovereignty (…) and until the moment when the Malian and African forces will be in a position to fully take over the operation against the Islamists”
In a related development, France wants a United Nations peacekeeping force to be in place in Mali by April, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday. When asked if it is possible for the Mali mission to be replaced by a UN peacekeeping force by April, Fabius said yes.
“Our experts and partners are aiming for
that,” he said. After UN Security Council talks on Mali, French Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud on Wednesday called on the Security Council to deploy an international peacekeeping operation in Mali to take over from French forces.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le
Drian on Tuesday ruled out a long-term
deployment of French troops in Mali
following positive progress made during
France’s three-week military intervention against Islamist rebels. During his one-day visit to Mali last
Saturday, French President Francois
Hollande stressed that French soldiers
would return home once the conflict-torn state has restored sovereignty and a U.N-backed African military force could take over from the French soldiers.
France has already poured 3,500 soldiers
into the West African country and carried out air strikes since Jan. 11 in the rebel-held northern half of Mali.