French troops to begin Mali pullout in March-foreign minister

PARIS Wed Feb 6, 2013 4:16am IST

A Malian soldier (C, in helmet) patrols with French soldiers along the street outside the Ahmed Baba Institute, or Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, in Timbuktu February 2, 2013. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

A Malian soldier (C, in helmet) patrols with French soldiers along the street outside the Ahmed Baba Institute, or Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, in Timbuktu February 2, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

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PARIS (Reuters) - France plans to begin pulling troops out of Mali from March and will focus its operations on flushing out Islamist rebels in the north of the country, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday.

"We will continue to act in the north where some terrorist havens remain," he said in an interview for Wednesday's Metro newspaper.

"I think that from March, if everything goes according to plan, the number of French troops should fall."

Fance has deployed nearly 4,000 ground troops, as well as warplanes and armoured vehicles in its three-week-old Operation Serval that has broken the Islamist militants' 10-month grip on northern towns.

It is now due to gradually hand over to a U.N.-backed African force of some 8,000 troops, known as AFISMA, of which around 3,800 have already been deployed.

Paris and its allies want to prevent the Islamists from using Mali's desert north as a base to launch attacks on neighbouring African countries and the West.

"The narco-terrorist groups have been stooped thanks to our strikes," Fabius said. But there can still be individual acts. We have to stay on our guard."

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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