Hundreds of al-Qaeda-linked fighters have been killed since the beginning of French military operation in northern Mali, France’s defence minister has said.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, said on wednesday that the 26-day military intervention had killed “several hundred” rebel fighters as its air and ground forces chased them from their northern strongholds into remote mountainous terrain in the far northeast, near the Algerian border.
The defence ministry said the fighters died in French air strikes on vehicles transporting fighters and equipment, and in “direct combat in Konna and Gao”, key central and northern towns.
France’s sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot who was killed at the start of the military operation.
Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded after the battle at Konna last month but has not since released a new death toll.
France is likely to begin withdrawing its soldiers from Mali in March, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told daily newspaper Metro in an interview.
“I think that starting in March, if everything goes as planned, the number of our troops should diminish.”
Nearly 4,000 French troops are currently deployed in Mali, and the former colonial ruler is keen to hand over the operation to African forces.
The French defence ministry said Kidal – the last town to fall of those seized by al-Qaeda-linked fighters who occupied northern Mali for 10 months – was now under the control of French forces and about 1,800 Chadian troops.
The rebels have fled to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif around Kidal, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves, where they are believed to be holding seven French hostages.
The MNLA [National Movement for Liberation of Azawad] – which was originally fighting alongside the rebels but then fell out with them – said it was working with France against “terrorists” in the region.
Al Jazeera filmed exclusive pictures of Tuareg fighters patrolling the streets of Kidal.
The MNLA launched a rebellion a year ago fighting for an independent state for the desert nomad Tuareg people, who have long felt marginalised by Mali’s government.
The Tuaregs initially fought alongside Ansar Dine and MUJAO but were later sidelined by the Islamists, who took control of the northern Mali and introduced Sharia laws.
Le Drian said France had “functional relations” with the group in Kidal but that fighting terrorists alongside them was “not our objective”.
Elsewhere, African and other world powers announced their support for a proposal that would see the United Nations deploy a peacekeeping force to Mali, taking over responsibilities from a similar African force.
Tuesday’s EU-hosted meeting of the Mali Support Group in Brussels was focused on how to ensure lasting security by supporting democracy, economic development and human rights in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Global players including the UN and African Union called for elections – which Mali’s interim government has promised by July 31 – and a national dialogue.