By Joe Penney and Emmanuel Braun
GAO, Mali (Reuters) - France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian paid a surprise visit on Thursday to French forces battling Islamist rebels in rugged northern Mali, saying their military mission would not end until security was restored in the West African country.
After reviewing ranks of French soldiers near the desolate Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, Le Drian told France 24 television that Paris' aim was to help "reestablish security in the whole of Mali's territory".
"It is after that, progressively, we will hand over to an African mission under a U.N. mandate," he said. "I came to greet our forces ... (and say) that France is proud of its troops and proud of the professionalism of the operation and the way it is working out."
France said al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels' seizure of the northern two-thirds of Mali in April posed a risk to the security of Europe and West Africa.
It launched a ground and air operation on January 11 to halt a push southward by Islamist rebels, and has since driven the militants out of major towns of northern Mali.
President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday that France would start to draw down its forces in Mali from April, a month later than previously forecast.
French and Chadian forces have battled die-hard Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas, near the Algerian border, for two weeks. Chad has claimed to have killed al Qaeda's two top leaders in the region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Hollande said on Wednesday that "terrorist leaders" had been killed in the operation, but did not provide further details.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that DNA testing was being carried out on the bodies of hundreds of dead Islamist fighters.
"To identify the two or three leaders who have been cited, we have to carry out precise tests with DNA and that is what the army services are doing," he told RTL radio. "We should know fairly quickly."
France is keen to hand responsibility for operations in Mali to an 8,000-strong African-led force AFISMA, some three-quarters of which has already deployed to the landlocked country.
Paris is pushing for the Mali mission to be given a U.N. peacekeeping mandate once offensive military operations have finished. The Security Council is expected to discuss this in the coming weeks.
However, achieving a durable peace in Mali will require unifying the country's south, home to the capital Bamako, with the vast desert north, where Tuareg separatists launched a rebellion last year that was hijacked by Islamist fighters.
Many in southern Mali now feel deep resentment toward the northern Tuaregs and light-skilled Arabs, associated with the Islamist fighters, complicating prospects for peace.
President Dioncounda Traore's government, which aims to hold national elections in July, announced the creation of a Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission on Wednesday, charged with identifying human rights abuses during the conflict and deciding which armed groups were eligible to participate in talks.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Vicky Buffery in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Richard Valdmanis)