BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The war against armed Islamic extremists in Mali will lose some 2,000 Chadian soldiers, the president of Chad said, leaving Malian cities more vulnerable to a resurgence of jihadist attacks.
The news that Chad will pull its troops from Mali could force France to push back its own timeframe for withdrawing its troops from its former West African colony and creates greater urgency for a U.N. force in Mali. The United Nations is set to consider sending a peacekeeping mission, but diplomats have yet to determine its scope and composition.
Since the French-led mission began in mid-January, soldiers from Chad have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting and are credited with some of the biggest successes to date. Among them was killing Abou Zeid, a notorious al-Qaida commander who had kidnapped and terrorized Westerners in the desert for years.
Chad also has suffered heavy troop casualties. Chadian President Idriss Deby announced his forces would not be sticking around for a protracted guerrilla war with the radical Islamic insurgents.
"Chad's army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging in northern Mali. Our soldiers are going to return to Chad. They have accomplished their mission," Deby said in an interview with French journalists posted online Monday.
France took the lead back in January in launching the war to dislodge Islamic militants who had seized control of northern Mali in 2012 amid the chaos after a coup in Mali's capital.
The French, like the Chadians, are hoping to downscale their presence and have said they hope to have only 1,000 troops left in Mali by the end of the year, down from a high of 4,000.
The early departure of Chadian forces raises questions about how feasible the planned French pullout will be if the French want to maintain the inroads made against armed Islamic extremists in northern Mali. The French Defense Ministry had no comment Monday on Chad's decision.
"Ultimately the French may have to revise their own timetable for withdrawal unless they somehow persuade someone else to pick up the slack, which is unlikely," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Chadian forces, always known to be good desert fighters, have enhanced their reputation during the Mali conflict, and one of the great concerns is that there are no other African troops with their capabilities.
France hopes to circulate a draft resolution at the U.N. that would authorize a 13,000-strong peacekeeping force for Mali, and is hoping for a vote by the end of the month. U.N. diplomats say the expectation is that the U.N. force would not take over from African troops currently on the ground until July 1 at the earliest. Deby did not rule out the possibility of his country's troops returning under a U.N. mandate.
The military operation in Mali scored quick successes, forcing the jihadists out of northern Mali's major cities. Not long after the euphoria and a celebratory visit from French President Francois Hollande, though, the jihadists regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks. The northern Mali cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have been hit with suicide bombings and attacks and the departure of the Chadians risks further weakening their defenses.
"I think there's a danger of increased attacks, but I think the insurgents themselves face a quandary and it's a strategic one," Pham said, adding that if they increase their tempo of attacks, the French will be forced to stay longer.
Once the Chadian troops leave, about 4,000 soldiers from other African nations remain to aid Mali. They hail from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Niger and Togo.
For its part, the Malian military is poorly equipped to take the lead in the war. A European Union-led mission is training Malian soldiers, though the Malian military still remains badly disorganized in the wake of last year's coup, led by a junior officer.
Chad's participation in the fight against jihadists has come at a considerable cost: At least 23 Chadian soldiers were killed in one battle alone in February. And three others died after a suicide bomb attack in Kidal last week.
Chad already has begun pulling out one battalion and the rest will leave incrementally, the president said in a joint interview with France's Le Monde newspaper, TV5 Monde and RFI radio.
The Chadians say they've significantly hampered the jihadists by taking out not only Zeid, but also Moktar Belmoktar, who was behind a hostage-taking of foreign workers at an Algerian gas plant in January that left dozens dead.
Belmoktar's death has not yet been confirmed by French authorities, who identified Zeid's remains by DNA testing.
Even with two of the top jihadist leaders dead, the Malian and French soldiers still face significant threats in the north. In northern Mali's largest city of Gao, the mayor lamented Chad's decision on Monday.
"This is very bad news. There is no one other than the French and Chadian troops who can put our minds at ease," Sadou Diallo said. "Our soldiers are not yet ready to take over the mission."
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.