France's foreign minister has announced the planned departure of French troops for March as Kidal, the last rebel held town in the north, has been retaken by French and African troops from Islamist rebels.
As France prepares to withdraw troops from Mali, an international support group including the United Nations and African Union met in Brussels on Monday to discuss plans for the country's future.
"I think that starting in March, if all goes as planned, the number of French troops could be reduced," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the Metro newspaper. "France does not want to remain permanently in Mali. It is the Africans and the Malians themselves who must guarantee security, the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country,."
"That is why we are going to, progressively, pass the baton to the African military mission to Mali (AFISMA). We ourselves are going to continue to act in the north where there remain terrorist pockets," he added.
Fabius described the operation as "very effective in blocking the terrorist groups and retaking cities" in the north. "The narco-terrorist groups have been stopped.... (but) we have to remain on our guard in Mali as in the neighbouring countries... the risk is still there," he said.
France has roughly 4,000 troops in Mali.
Kidal, the last town to fall of those seized by al Qaeda-linked fighters who occupied northern Mali for 10 months, "is under the control of French forces" with "the support of African and in particular Chadian forces," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM-TV in Paris. The defense ministry earlier said 1,800 Chadian troops had entered Kidal.
Le Drian said that "several hundred" Islamist militants had been killed in airstrikes and direct combat with French troops since the start of the offensive in January.
Le Drian also said the French troops had "functional relations" with the MNLA, who he described as "facilitators." The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) is a Tuareg group seeking autonomy in the north which was formerly allied with the Islamists.
The MNLA earlier said it was working with France against "terrorists" in the region. "In the framework of anti-terrorist coordination put in place with French forces", the MNLA will provide intelligence on "top terrorist officials" they have arrested, a spokesman said in Burkina Faso.
The MNLA seized control of northern Mali in April, taking advantage of a power vacuum left by a coup in Bamako, but its revolt was eclipsed by a loose alliance of Islamist jihadists.
Talks with the MNLA could be unpopular as they are blamed by many for the current war, which has displaced more than 400,000 people.
Le Drian said in Paris: "From the moment that the MNLA declares - it appears that it's doing it - that it is neither terrorist nor secessionist, and that it wishes to enter into internal dialogue on Mali, it will be at the table."
In France, President Francois Hollande urged Europe to fight drug trafficking in west Africa, telling the European Parliament that "terrorism feeds on narcotics trafficking." The groups that seized northern Mali are reported to depend on drug trafficking, smuggling and kidnapping to arm themselves.
The international support group for Mali met in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss how to support a political process leading to elections that interim President Dioncounda Traore has said Mali hopes to hold on 31 July. It also reviewed plans to fund, equip and train an 8,000-strong African force expected to eventually take over from the French.
"A free and fair electoral process, the return to full constitutional order and a genuinely inclusive national dialogue are key to address the instability in Mali and restore security and development in the Sahel region across the board," the group said in their final statement.
jm/msh (AFP, Reuters)