France's defense minister has made a surprise trip to Mali to meet with troops. The visit came as the French government announced over 100 militants have been killed in its latest military campaign.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian surprised French troops on Thursday, traveling to the Ametetai valley in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, the site of recent fighting between French-Chadian coalition forces and Islamist groups.
France first sent military forces to Mali eight weeks ago to help the country push militants out of its vast north. Some 4,000 French troops in total have been deployed to fight alongside Malian and West African soldiers against the Islamist rebels.
"In dislodging the jihadists from their last bastions, you are the spearhead of this relentless war," Le Drian told troops in Tessalit, on the north side of the Ifoghas, according to a statement from his office.
"On you, and with our brothers in the Chadian army ... rests a large part of the success" of the military intervention, he added.
Four French soldiers and at least 26 Chadian troops have died in the campaign thus far. At a press conference in Paris Thursday military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said that since French troops arrived on January 11, over 100 insurgents had been confirmed dead.
In Mali, Le Drian paid tribute to the French and Chadian soldiers killed, telling France 24 television that he "wanted to salute our soldiers … because it is here that fighting has been at its hardest."
"I want to pay homage to them and salute their comrades," he said. "I wanted to tell them that France is proud of its soldiers."
Also on Thursday Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio that the military was conducting DNA tests to verify recent reports that two top militants were killed: Abou Zeid, head of one of the most violent groups of al Qaeda's North African arm, and former ally Moktar Belmoktar, the alleged mastermind of a deadly hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January.
Chad's president and Chadian media have said they were killed, but French officials have yet to confirm their deaths.
On Wednesday, President Francois Hollande said that he would start to withdraw troops from Mali in April as the mountain offense shows "success … including terrorist leaders who have been killed."
Le Drian said that despite France's success, there is still work to be done.
"The mission is not over," he said. "It is later that we will progressively withdraw to hand over the African mission under the United Nations."
dr/hc (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)