Though France was expected to withdraw its troops from Mali by the end of March, French President Francois Hollande updated the timetable and said the troops would be halved to 2,000 by July and then cut again to 1,000 by the end of the year.
There are more than 4,000 French troops in Mali in an operation that began in January to rout Islamist rebels from a southern advance on the capital city of Bamako. Since then French forces, joined by an African coalition of more than 2,000, primarily led by troops from Chad, have taken back the main cities in the north. Now the troops are contending with isolated attacks from the Islamists and trying to flush them out of the mountains of northern Mali.
“We have achieved our objectives,” Hollande said in an interview with the France 2 TV channel.
Hollande said the 1,000 French troops that remain in Mali probably would join a UN peacekeeping force.
Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, earlier this week proposed an 11,200-strong peacekeeping force in Mali that could maintain security after the French leave.
Ban proposed that the UN force would work alongside non-UN forces to conduct major combat and counterterrorism operations.
“Although the extremists and criminal elements have been dealt a heavy blow, they continue to pose a significant threat to the safety and security of the civilian population and any United Nations personnel deployed in Mali,” the U.N. chief said in a report he gave to the U.N. Security Council.
Ban said the option would give a combat role to the African-led force in Mali, AFISMA, which is made up of a cobbling together of troops from nearby nations such as Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and it would also expand the U.N. political mission.
It would “operate under robust rules of engagement, with a mandate to use all necessary means to address threats to the implementation of its mandate, which would include protection of civilians,” Ban said, according to Reuters.
The secretary-general said there may also be a need for a second “parallel force” that would “conduct major combat and counterterrorism operations and provide specialist support beyond the scope of the United Nations mandate and capability.”
In the television interview, Hollande said Mali should hold elections as planned in July, but he said France would not back any candidate.
“The time when France chose African heads of state is over,” he said.
Hollande acknowledged that France still had not secured the release of six French hostages being held in the Sahel. He said France would not pay ransoms to get the hostages freed and the French believe one of the hostages has already been killed.