France to Secure Mali Before Handing Over Mission

GAO, Mali (Reuters) -

France will only hand over to African troops in Mali when security is restored, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his forces during a surprise visit to the rugged north of the country where they are battling Islamist rebels.

Reviewing the ranks of French soldiers in the dusty Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, Le Drian paid homage to the courage of troops engaged in fierce fire-fights with al-Qaeda terrorists in the desolate desert region near the Algerian border.

An eight-week, French-led offensive has broken the control of al-Qaeda-linked Islamists over the northern two-thirds of the impoverished landlocked nation, though pockets of resistance remain in the desert and mountains.

“Our mission is to liberate Mali, strengthen the country, and to assure sovereignty,” Le Drian said in Gao, the main town in northern Mali, shortly after he visited troops in the mountains. “The security of Mali, and the security of our country, go together,” he said.

France launched a ground and air operation on January 11, saying the Islamist rebels’ hold of Mali’s north posed a risk to the security of West Africa and Europe.

Having halted a push southward by Islamist rebels, French forces have driven terrorists out of major towns and, alongside hundreds of Chadian soldiers, are now seeking to clear rebels from cave redoubts in the Adrar des Ifoghas.

“We are in the last phase, the most decisive phase,” Le Drian said. “This phase entails some very violent combat. When the liberation of the whole country is complete, then we will hand over responsibility to African forces.”

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.

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.