7 Feb 2013

France claims several hundred militants in Mali

6:26 am on 7 February 2013

French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says French-led forces have killed several hundred Islamist fighters since starting military operations in Mali nearly a month ago.

He says great damage has been inflicted on jihadist terrorist groups.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says France may begin pulling its troops out of Mali as early as March, the BBC reports.

In a newspaper interview, he said that "if everything goes as planned, the number of troops should diminish".

France has an estimated 4000 troops in Mali and officials from multilateral institutions and dozens of countries have been meeting in Brussels to discuss how to replace them.

The defence minister said the last major town in northern Mali to remain in the hands of the rebels, Kidal, was now under French control.

Air attacks are continuing on suspected rebel hideouts north of the town.

The militants died in French airstrikes on vehicles carrying fighters and materials, or in ground fighting in the town of Konna at the start of the campaign and later in the town of Gao, Mr Le Drian said.

He said French troops had inflicted "great damage on the jihadist terrorist groups", saying "several hundred, a significant number" of Islamist fighters had been killed.

The BBC says to put that in context, at the outset of the offensive French experts suggested that the Islamist alliance could probably muster about 3000 fighters overall.

France has suffered only one fatality so far - a helicopter pilot killed at the beginning of the operation.

Mr Le Drian said Malian forces had also taken prisoners - "some" high-ranking militants - whom he said would "have to answer to Malian courts and international justice".

French forces continue to carry out airstrikes in mountains north of Kidal where Islamists have taken refuge - and where some or all of seven French hostages are being held, the BBC reports.