GAO: Nearly a month after launching an offensive in Mali to drive out extremists, France mulled the withdrawal of its troops on Thursday after asking the UN to prepare a peacekeeping force to take the baton.
French troops began to withdraw from Timbuktu on Thursday after securing the fabled city as they ramped up their mission in another northern Mali city.
French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said on Thursday that the operation to secure Gao is still under way, nearly two weeks after French and Malian troops moved into the area.
France’s 28-day-old intervention has largely driven the Al Qaeda-linked rebels, who controlled northern Mali for 10 months and had threatened to advance on the capital, to the remote mountains of the far northeast, along the Algerian border.
But French-led forces continue to come under attack in reclaimed territory, and with fears of a prolonged insurgency, Paris is keen to hand over the military burden.
French President Francois Hollande has said France could begin withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali as early as March.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reiterated that stance on Thursday, saying the administration was sticking to its schedule and emphasizing the need for political as well as military action.
“Our objective cannot be achieved with arms only,” Fabius said in an interview on French television BFM.
In a sign of heightened security, authorities briefly detained three Tuareg men in Gao on Thursday who were stopped after they did not have their identity papers.
The French defence ministry said on Thursday that the intervention in its former colony has already cost France 70 million euros ($95 million), with the figure rising by 2.7 million euros per day.
France’s sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot killed at the start of the operation.
Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded in early fighting but has not since released a new death toll.
Mali’s paramilitary police on Thursday said four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in northern territory where French-led forces recently chased out Islamist rebels.
After announcing plans to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali in March, France called on Wednesday for a United Nations peacekeeping force to take over.
Fabius said a peacekeeping force could be in place by April, incorporating troops being deployed under the banner of a West African intervention force, AFISMA, into a UN mission.
“This gives the advantage of being under the umbrella of the United Nations, under its financing,” he said.
France’s ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, said it would take “several weeks” to make an assessment on sending peacekeepers.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous acknowledged objections raised by the Bamako transitional government but said such a force is supported by the African Union, the Community of West African States and key UN members.
“I think there is clearly a shared desire of the international community to do what needs to be done in Mali,” Ladsous told a press conference in New York.
While the population of Timbuktu is anxious, worrying that the departure of French troops will open the door for the Islamists to return, French military officials said they had fulfilled their mission here.