PARIS (AP) — French troops will stay in the West African country of Mali at least until July, amid tougher-than-expected resistance from Islamic fighters, officials have told The Associated Press, despite earlier government promises to begin a quick pullout within weeks.
France's leadership has painted the intervention against al-Qaida-backed radicals in Mali, which began in January, as a swift and limited one, and said that France could start withdrawing its 4,000 troops in Mali in March and hand over security duties to an African force.
But the combat in rugged Sahara Desert mountains is growing harder, and there's a rising threat that the militants will turn to suicide bombings, hostage-taking and other guerrilla tactics.
One French diplomat acknowledged this week that a French military presence is expected to remain for at least six months. Two other French officials told The Associated Press that the French will remain at least until July, when France is hoping that Mali can hold elections.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the military campaign.
Any French pullout in March is likely to be small and symbolic, leaving behind a robust force to try to keep the peace in a poor and troubled country, the officials say. Mali was largely peaceful until a coup last year led to a political vacuum that allowed militants inspired by an extreme form of Islam to grab control of the country's north.
France, which is winding down its 11-year presence in Afghanistan, has now spent more than €100 million ($131million) on fighting in Mali over the past six weeks, and is facing the prospect of another protracted and costly intervention against far-away jihadists.
France's defense minister seems to be seeking wiggle room on the timetable for a pullout. And one French diplomat acknowledged: "Nobody believes the French presence will be over in six months." Some analysts say even that's optimistic.
In the latest fighting, military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said Thursday that about 1,200 French, 800 Chadian and an unspecified number of Malian troops are closing in on an unspecified number of extremist fighters in a roughly 25-square kilometer (15-mile) zone in the Adrar des Ifoghas range near the Algerian border in northeastern Mali.
The oval-shaped area south of the town of Tessalit is the "center of gravity" of a new French operation involving helicopter gunships, fighter jets, mobile artillery pieces and armored vehicles, Burkhard said. He declined to provide details because the operation was ongoing, but indicated that French fighters had killed about 40 insurgents over the last week or so.
Burkhard said he believes al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was active in the area. AQIM is one of three militant groups that controlled northern Mali for 10 months before France's Jan. 11 invasion sent them scurrying into rural areas. And he left little doubt that the armed extremists are digging in for a long fight.
"They are sustained in a region they know very well. ... They have established defensive, underground positions, positions that their different members can change between, and logistically — with pre-positioned weapons and food depots," he said. "They want to hold this area in a durable way."
French politicians, wary that public support for the war could quickly sink, are increasingly seeking to play down expectations and gird for a long-term commitment.
"The hardest part is yet to come. ... It's more complicated because we have to be on the ground, with a fine-toothed comb, slowly, meter after meter practically, on a territory that's still rather vast but where the terrorists have been reduced," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio on Tuesday. "We'll take this to the end."
France's government has said it plans a gradual drawdown starting in March. As the diplomat put it: "That doesn't mean we're going to pull out 1,000 all at once, but even if we pull out 100, that will be considered by the French public as the start of a withdrawal."
After France's longtime participation in NATO's Afghan mission, and its major role in helping topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, French officials are wary about getting bogged down in yet another war — and setting timetables about withdrawal is both uncomfortable and uncertain.
Pressed on the time frame in an interview with France-2 TV last week, Le Drian said: "We are not there for a long time. We have no intention to stay."
From the get-go of their military campaign on Jan. 11, the French have summed up their military strategy as stopping the advance of jihadists from unruly northern Mali toward Bamako, the capital, and freeing the northern cities the radicals had controlled for 10 months, imposing harsh Islamic rule. Those two goals have largely been achieved through French air power and long-distance artillery strikes.
The third pillar of the French campaign is proving the hardest: rooting out rebel holdouts in the Ifoghas range near Algeria's border, and rallying African troops to take over stabilization and peacekeeping efforts once the French leave.
That plan was dealt a blow last week when about two dozen reputedly crack troops from Chad, another former French colony with familiarity operating in desert terrain like northern Mali's, were killed in a gunfight in the Ifoghas.
Lining up African military support, which has already been sputtering, could run into greater hurdles if their troops are getting killed. Since the operation began, French officials estimate that hundreds of insurgents have been killed; two French soldiers have died.
One reason the French are likely to stay for a while is that they are the only Western power with the wherewithal to act militarily in West Africa.
"Generally when an army says it's going to pull out its troops, it never does withdraw them all. In other words, you can imagine special forces, logistics teams are going to stay there, and maybe in support of the African armies that are supposed to take over," said Laurence Aida Ammour, a security and defense expert focusing on West and northern Africa at the Institute of Political Science in Bordeaux.
Much of the international community has given moral and political support to France, but limited its payouts. European trainers for Malian soldiers are expected to help, and several Western allies have helped with logistics support including transport planes.
The United States is helping with intelligence-gathering, notably with unarmed drones flying out of neighboring Niger. Under U.S. law, the American government — which had been training Malian forces before the military coup last year — cannot provide aid to countries run by or with a major component of control of unelected juntas.
National elections in July are supposed to give Mali's wobbly government more legitimacy, notably so that countries like the United States could offer their blessing and support.
Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.