Malians wave at a convoy of French tanks and heavy armoured vehicles leaving Senou airport in Bamako on Monday. Photograph: George Henton/EPA
France may begin a gradual withdrawal of its troops from Mali as early as the next few weeks, handing over responsibility for security in the country to a still-developing African force.
The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said a ?progressive move from a French military presence to an African military presence? could happen ?relatively quickly? and ?in a few weeks? France could begin reducing its troop numbers.
Le Drian told Europe 1 radio that the 4,000 French troops in Mali ? the same number as France had at the height of its 11-year military presence in Afghanistan ? was the ?maximum? and would not be increased.
Forces from France and Chad have reportedly secured the key city of Kidal in northern Mali. French aircraft and troops have continued to target suspected hideouts of Islamist fighters in the sparsely populated Saharan desert. There are fears that the extremists who have fled Mali?s cities during the three-week French-led operation could try to stage attacks from remote bases.
Le Drian said there had been ?clashes? on Tuesday in the area around Gao. ?When our forces, backed by Mali forces, began to patrol and conduct missions around the towns we had taken, troops found residual jihadist groups who fought,? he said.
He added that since the start of the French intervention on 11 January there had been ?significant losses? among Islamist groups and ?a real war?. Earlier this week Le Drian said ?several hundred? Islamists had been killed.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told the Metro newspaper: ?I think that starting in March, if everything goes as planned, the number of our troops should diminish.?
He stressed that terrorist threats remained and that the fight was not yet over, but that ultimately Africans and Malians themselves needed to take responsibility for the region?s security.
France launched the Mali operation last month to drive back al-Qaida-linked extremists who had seized the north of the country, imposing harsh rule on local populations, and had started pushing toward Mali?s capital. France?s government said it feared the region could become a haven for international terrorists.
A UN diplomat said on Tuesday the French were talking about another month or so of active engagement in Mali, with one aim being the interruption of supplies to the extremists.
The UN security council is likely to wait until the end of February, when the military action had ended, to adopt a new resolution authorising a UN peacekeeping force for Mali, the diplomat said. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Mali conflict.
As French troops focus farther north, they are moving out of cities they seized earlier in the operation. They are already expected to start handing control of Timbuktu to African forces this week.
Some 3,800 forces from other African states are in Mali backing up the Malian army, the official said. But it is far from clear that African forces are ready to take full responsibility against the Islamic extremists, who may strike at cities from their desert hideouts.
The spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu, Captain Samba Coulibaly, said there was no reason for the population to fear the withdrawal of French troops.
?With the size of the force we have here right now, we can maintain security in the town of Timbuktu,? he said. ?The departure of the French soldiers does not scare us, especially since their air force will still be present both in Timbuktu and Sevare. They control this entire zone and can intervene within a matter of minutes in order to carry out air strikes as needed.?
One thousand eight hundred Chadian troops are holding the northern city of Kidal, the French military official said on Tuesday.
The French last week began a campaign of air strikes on Islamic rebel outposts around Kidal and Tessalit. French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets have flown 135 sorties since Thursday and targeted 25 sites, primarily fuel and logistics depots, the French defence ministry said.
While their forces took control of Kidal?s airport some time ago, it is not clear why they did not take Kidal city with the same swiftness as they took Gao and Timbuktu.
There was speculation the pace of the French advance was being constrained by the fact that the retreating rebels are holding western hostages, including eight French citizens. Fears have grown about their safety as French forces moved closer to where several of them are thought to be held.
In a sign of normality, the mayor?s office of Timbuktu will open for the first time in 10 months on Wednesday, the city?s mayor, Ousmane Halle, said.
?The city is now secure. There are ongoing patrols by French and Malian soldiers, and we no longer have any reason to fear an attack by the Islamists,? he said.