France has started withdrawing its troops from Mali after an operation to help local forces push back an offensive by Islamist rebels, an army spokesman said.
Paris aims to complete the withdrawal of 3,000 soldiers this year but will keep a permanent 1,000-strong combat force in the former colony to support a UN peacekeeping mission of African forces.
Despite concerns over persistent Islamist attacks in the north and the lack of security in many areas, France is pressing Mali’s interim government to organise national elections to complete a democratic transition after a coup in March 2012. “It’s the start of the pullout,” the army spokesman said. “The aim is to be down to 2,000 in July.” He said about 100 men from a parachute regiment that had been based in Tessalit, in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, had now left Mali.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has called for the deployment of a UN mission of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in Mali once major combat ends.