By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - French troops should be allowed to hunt down al Qaeda-linked militants beyond Mali's borders, French army chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud said in a rare interview on Thursday.
Nine months after they were scattered across the Sahara by a French military offensive, Islamists in Mali have named new leaders and are making a comeback as France whittles down its military presence. They have launched attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and killed two French journalists this month.
Speaking to Europe 1 radio, Guillaud said Paris would reduce its troop numbers in Mali to between 2,000 and 2,500 by year-end and aimed to reach its target of a 1,000-strong permanent force in Mali "during the winter".
France retains about 2,800 soldiers in its former colony, according to a defense ministry statement issued on Thursday.
Paris has already delayed drawing the force down to February depending on the roll-out of a U.N. peacekeeping mission, which is so far only at half its mandated strength of 12,600 men.
Asked if French soldiers should be allowed to cross borders when militants leave Mali, Guillaud said: "I think we should hunt them down everywhere. That's why we are working with our neighbors Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, and also cooperating with Algeria so that there is no sanctuary for them."
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Reuters in Morocco on Thursday that France's military presence in Mali was needed to help a region struggling against militants, who have threatened to attack French interests and have sought haven in southern Libya's vast deserts.
KILLINGS OF JOURNALISTS
The two journalists were shot by their captors shortly after being kidnapped earlier this month as they emerged from an interview with a representative of the MNLA Tuareg group in the northern desert city of Kidal, a hotbed of rebel activity.
A number of Tuareg and Arab rebel groups still operate in Mali and are due to hold talks with the new government over long-term solutions to recurring northern uprisings.
These groups have come under pressure since the killings of the journalists. Tuareg rebels in Kidal on Thursday officially handed control of the government buildings they occupied to United Nations peacekeepers.
Adama Kamissoko, the governor of Kidal, said there had been minor demonstrations by pro-separatist rebel supporters.
Highlighting the continuing threat, Guillaud said French troops had fought and "neutralized" a number of militants from al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM on Wednesday night, about 250 km (150 miles) west of Tessalit in the far north of Mali.
"In Mali, it's not finished," he said. "We need to adapt to circumstances. There are still suicide attacks, assassinations of our compatriots and there are (legislative)elections."
The task of calming the region has been complicated by increasingly blurred lines between Islamist militants, separatist rebels and gangs of smugglers. Experts are worried France could get bogged down in an open-ended war unless U.N. peacekeepers can plug the security gap.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Editing by David Lewis and Andrew Roche)