France will keep to Mali troop reduction calendar

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 05, 2013 5:08 AM
France will keep to Mali troop reduction calendar

PARIS (Reuters) - France will not delay its troop withdrawal from Mali despite a resurgence in violence that saw two French journalists killed at the weekend, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday.

France, which sent soldiers to its former colony in January to combat militants who had taken over swathes of the country, has already pushed back by two months plans to reduce troop numbers to 1,000, from 3,200 by the end of the year.

Fabius, speaking on RFI radio, confirmed the French army had redeployed 150 soldiers from the south to Kidal, the Tuareg rebel stronghold in the north, where instability has grown in recent months.

"President (Hollande) immediately decided to strengthen our presence in Kidal, but that does not put into question the calendar and the reduction of French forces," Fabius said.

Malian forces and U.N. peacekeeping troops would also be increased, he said.

France launched air strikes and sent thousands of soldiers into Mali in January to drive back al Qaeda-linked rebels it said could turn Mali into a base for militant attacks.

Islamists scattered during the French assault and a presidential election was held in August that brought Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to power.

Legislative elections are due on November 24, but the journalists' deaths follow a string of attacks in the desert zone of northern Mali.

Last month Malian and international forces launched a big operation to keep pressure on Islamist groups.

Although Malian, U.N. and French troops are stationed in Kidal, none are heavily deployed. The Malian army's contingent is generally symbolic and soldiers are confined to their base.

About 200 U.N. peacekeepers (MINUSMA) are officially in control of security and France also has about 200 troops, though their operations in the region have focussed on the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains to the north, which served for years as a hide-out for militants.

Officials said on Monday that French and Malian forces were hunting the killers of the journalists and questioning suspects, with Fabius suggesting Paris believed Islamist militants were behind the attack.

He said on Tuesday the situation was difficult in the north, but that Paris would continue to support the Malian authorities.

"President (Keita) is the one who needs to take decisions and France stands by him," Fabius said. "In the next few days we will perhaps be forced to take a number of decisions," he added without elaborating.

(Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Angus MacSwan)