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French troops battle with Mali rebels

GAO, Mali/PARIS: French troops clashed with militants firing rocket launchers outside the north Malian city of Gao, France’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said yesterday. The minister also said there have been “several hundred” rebel fighters killed and “large” destruction of weapons, giving the first indication of the scope of the combat in an interview Tuesday on France’s BFM TV.
“It’s a real war ... when we go outside of the center of cities that have been taken, we meet residual rebels,” he said yesterday on Europe-1 radio.
Gao has been held by French-led forces since late January, and Tuesday’s clashes highlight complications for the intervention.
Le Drian said French aircraft are continuing airstrikes every night on suspected militant arms depots and mine-making sites. On the ground, troops have found war materiel, weapons manuals and makeshift laboratories for making improvised explosive devices like roadside bombs. “We discover preparations for a true terrorist sanctuary,” he said.
France launched a swift military intervention on Jan. 11 against extremists who had taken over northern Mali, and started pushing toward the capital. A UN-authorized African force is starting to take over from French forces in cities seized at the outset of the intervention.
A secular rebel movement fighting for a nation for Mali’s minority Tuareg nomads claims it is holding several smaller northern towns, including the strategically located city of Kidal, on the road to Algeria. French and Chadian troops entered the city Tuesday.
Moussa Ag Assarid of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad said their fighters also are holding the northeastern towns of Tessalit, Menaka, Aguelhok and Tinzawatten, as well as Kidal. Azawad is what the Tuaregs call their would-be country It was not immediately possible to verify the claims.
Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande confirmed yesterday that a drawdown of French forces in Mali will begin in March as long as the military operation there continues to go well, a government spokeswoman said.
“As far as Mali is concerned, the president confirmed this morning that if everything goes to plan, the number of French troops in Mali will begin to fall from the month of March,” she said in a briefing to reporters following a cabinet meeting.
Defense Minister Le Drian had earlier said that the French force in Mali had reached a total of 4,000 men and would not be increased any further. French troops were Tuesday engaged in fighting with the remnants of armed groups that have been routed from most of the northern Mali towns they had controlled since last year.
Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said that at a Cabinet meeting yesterday, President Hollande “confirmed that if all goes as planned, by the end of March the number of French troops engaged in Mali can begin to diminish.”