The possible withdrawal, floated by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in a newspaper interview published on Tuesday night, came as forces from France and Chad secured the key city of Kidal in northern Mali.
French aircraft and troops were also targeting suspected hideouts of Islamist fighters in the sparsely populated Saharan desert. There are fears that the extremists who have fled Mali’s cities during the three-week French-led operation could try to stage attacks from remote bases.
The French foreign minister was quoted in France’s Metro newspaper as saying: “I think that starting in March, if everything goes as planned, the number of our troops should diminish.”
Fabius, whose office tweeted the newspaper story, stressed that terrorist threats remain and that the fight isn’t over yet, but that ultimately Africans and Malians themselves need to take responsibility for the region’s security.
France currently has some 4,000 troops in Mali, a French military official said. That’s about the same number as France had at the height of its 11-year military presence in Afghanistan.
France launched the Mali operation last month to drive back al-Qaida-linked extremists who had seized the north of the country, imposing harsh rule on local populations, and had started pushing toward Mali’s capital. France’s government fears the region could become a haven for international terrorists.
A UN diplomat said on Tuesday that the French are talking about another month or so of active engagement in Mali, with one aim being the interruption of supplies to the extremists.
The UN Security Council is likely to wait until the end of February, when the military action has hopefully ended, to adopt a new resolution authorising a UN peacekeeping force for Mali, the diplomat said. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Mali conflict.
As French troops focus farther north, they are moving out of cities they seized earlier in the operation. They are already expected to start handing control of Timbuktu to African forces this week.
Some 3,800 forces from other African states are in Mali backing up the weak Malian army, the official said. But it is far from clear that the African forces are ready to take full responsibility against the Islamic extremists, who may strike the cities from their desert hideouts.
The spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu, Captain Samba Coulibaly, said there is no reason for the population to fear the withdrawal of French troops.
“With the size of the force we have here right now, we can maintain security in the town of Timbuktu,” he said. “The departure of the French soldiers does not scare us, especially since their air force will still be present both in Timbuktu and Sevare. They control this entire zone and can intervene within a matter of minutes in order to carry out airstrikes as needed,” he said.
Some 1,800 Chadian troops are now holding the northern city of Kidal, the French military official said on Tuesday.
The French last week began a campaign of airstrikes on Islamic rebel outposts around Kidal and Tessalit. French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets have flown 135 sorties since Thursday and targeted 25 sites, primarily fuel and logistics depots, the French defence ministry said.
While their forces took control of Kidal’s airport some time ago, it’s not clearwhy they did not take Kidal city with the same swiftness as they took Gao and Timbuktu.
There was speculation that the pace of their advance was being constrained by the fact that the retreating rebels are holding western hostages, including eight who are French. Fears have mounted about their safety as the French intervention has moved closer to where several of them are thought to be held.
In a sign of normalcy, the mayor’s office of Timbuktu will open for the first time in 10 months on Wednesday, the city’s mayor, Ousmane Halle said.
“The city is now secure. There are ongoing patrols by French and Malian soldiers, and we no longer have any reason to fear an attack by the Islamists,” he said.