Conflict & Justice

France to cut troops in Mali


French soldiers patrol at the site where a suicide bomber blew himself up on February 10, 2013 in northern Gao on the road to Gourem.



France will cut troop levels in Mali from 4,000 service members to 1,000 by year's end.

"We will start withdrawing at the end of April," French President Francois Hollande said in an interview with France 2 television on Thursday.

"In July, there will be no more than 2000 soldiers in Mali," he said. "At the end of the year, there will only be 1000 troops."

After aiding Mali in January as northern al Qaeda-linked rebels advanced toward the capital Bamako, France is now looking to diminish its presence quickly and hand over the mission to African and UN troops.

More from GlobalPost: France: Al Qaeda chief Abou Zeid killed in Mali

Hollande said France was determined that Mali would hold its elections in July as scheduled, and insisted his country did not have preference for any one candidate.

"The days when France chose Africa's heads of state for it are over," he told French television in an interview.

The president also reiterated France's official policy of not considering ransom demands for kidnap victims. He said intelligence suggested that Philippe Verdon, a French hostage that went missing in Mali in 2011, could already be dead. He did say, however, he had "signs of life" of a group of seven French nationals that includes four children who were kidnapped last month from Cameroon by Boko Haram.

France has taken a pretty sober tack in its war on terrorism in Mali. Since the first French troops landed in Bamako, the number deployed has been steadily increased to 4,000 as France has led the charge (with Mali's own army very much in the vanguard) against the al-Qaeda aligned Islamist groups in the north of the country. There have been no premature declarations of victory.

French forces have occupied the northern cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, but even these garrison towns aren't safe from attack: suicide bombings have been carried out in all three and insurgent attacks come with worrying frequency.

Nevertheless France is intent on avoiding getting sucked into a lengthy, even intractable, battle against an elusive enemy in Mali and Hollande has made it clear he plans to make the operation an intervention, not an occupation. But squaring political intentions and on-the-ground reality is tricky. Initial plans to begin a pull-out of French troops were rethought before Hollande's latest announcement.

With the troop presence set to continue along with the African Union mission and a proposed 11,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation, it's clear Mali's war is far from over.