PARIS (Reuters) - France wants to cut its forces in Mali sharply by the year-end and is urging its ex-colony to hold elections in July, but an Islamist insurgency is threatening that timetable.
Many people in northern Mali who lived under the rebels' brutal form of Islamic law last year are apprehensive about French plans to leave just 1,000 of the current 4,000 troops in the country by December, with U.N. peacekeepers filling the gap.
"The Islamists are waiting for the French to leave to open the gates to hell. Let's hope the U.N. will take over quickly because the Malian army alone cannot face the terrorism threat," said Alhassane Maîga, a teacher in the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.
Last weekend Islamist militants launched their second attack on Timbuktu in a fortnight, shortly after French President Francois Hollande insisted the elections must take place as scheduled and unveiled the plan to slash troop numbers.
Launched in January, the French-led offensive quickly succeeded in pushing a mix of Islamists out of their northern strongholds and remote mountain bases, hitting the local leadership of the al Qaeda-linked groups.
But new clashes have followed a handful of suicide attacks and raids on towns won back from the rebels, underscoring the task of securing the country as France prepares to hand over to the Malian army and a 7,000-strong regional African force.
The nightmare scenario is that of a repeat of the Afghan war, where Taliban insurgents have prevented a full pull-out of NATO-led troops after a 13-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
Presidential and legislative elections due in July are vital steps to stabilising the gold and cotton producer after a military coup a year ago left a power vacuum which the rebels exploited to make gains.
"We're doing everything we can to ensure the elections happen in that timeframe," said a senior Malian government official speaking on condition of anonymity. "But if you ask me what could stop them (pulling out), I'd say: security, security, security."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius travels to Mali on Friday to make sure the main political players know what France's priorities are and that they are doing all they can to keep the political timetable on track.
Hollande has made it clear France's history of propping up African leaders indefinitely is over. He was quick to intervene against the militants who he argues could emerge as a global jihadist threat, but stresses the longer-term military, political and economic solutions must come from Malians and Africans first.
But the clock is already against him. The U.N. Security Council will vote this month to turn the current French and African mission into a U.N. peacekeeping force by July. If security does not quickly improve, French diplomats acknowledge it could be hard to justify an early winding down of troops.
"The fear is that the jihadists that have spread out will return when we leave," said one French diplomatic source. "The real political risk for us is if something serious then happens on the ground."
Caretaker Malian President Dioncounda Traore's announcement in late-January of presidential elections on July 7 and the parliamentary vote by July 31 answered a demand of Western governments which backed France's intervention.
Despite the attack in Timbuktu, Paris remains sure a good portion of the military work has been accomplished and that the withdrawal plans can be kept. It has promised to keep a rapid intervention force to fight militants if needed.
"From a security perspective things are better, but now we have to reinforce this improvement by extending that politically and through economic development," Fabius said. "We need democratic legitimacy ... Malians must express what they want for their future," he said before his visit to the capital Bamako, which lies in the country's south.
The French diplomat put the message more bluntly: "We have pushed forward the calendar to shake the Malians up a bit ... It's easy for them to let us do all the work, but at some point they need to move politically."
Officials believe the technical side of holding elections by July is possible as long as political parties agree to certain concessions, such as accepting that it may be too complicated for all refugees or displaced Malians to vote.
French officials also say that any later than July would delay elections until the end of the year due to heavy rains.
But a sporadic insurgency coupled with a slow process in negotiating with disenfranchised Tuareg separatists in the north, who have vowed to remain armed until they have certain guarantees, may also scupper Hollande's plans.
African and Malian officials privately fear France's early exit and few believe elections are possible in July. Those locals who lived under rebel rule, which included amputations as a form of punishment, are bracing for the worst.
"The withdrawal of 3,000 French troops in the northern cities would signify an abandonment and catastrophe," said Maîga, the Timbuktu teacher.
Mali's army, which is now being re-trained by European Union advisers, remains in tatters after the coup and a string of morale-sapping defeats last year. African troops have mostly stayed in the south and many lack logistics, funding and training, although a U.N. mandate could ease that burden.
Adding to general concerns, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo remains influential in Bamako.
"There is a lot of goodwill from Hollande, but the reality on the ground will mean that elections will be pushed back until after the rainy season," predicted a senior African diplomat.
Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; editing by Mark John and David Stamp