French troops clash with Islamists in 'real war' to win back north

French tank

French and Malian troops clashed with Islamist rebels near the large town of Gao, Paris said today after reporting that hundreds of insurgents had been killed in a "real war" to reclaim northern Mali.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the extremist rebels, who have been driven from key strongholds which they had controlled in northern Mali for 10 months, yesterday struck back at troops with rocket fire.

"There were clashes yesterday around Gao," Le Drian said on Europe 1 radio. "Once our troops, supported by Malian forces, started patrols around the towns that we have taken, they met residual jihadist groups who are still fighting."

One of the militant groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said it had attacked military positions in Gao, the largest city in the north.

"The combat isn't over. The attacks are going to continue," MUJAO's Abou Dardar said.

France launched its surprise intervention in the former French colony on January 11 as a triad of Islamist groups that had seized control of the north in the aftermath of a military coup pushed south toward the capital.

Nearly 4,000 French troops have deployed, a number that will not be increased, Le Drian said.

With the French government keen to pass the baton to some 8,000 African troops pledged for Mali, officials said soldiers would begin withdrawing "in March, if all goes as planned".

French President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, has confirmed that timeline, with a government spokeswoman telling journalists: "The president confirmed... that if everything goes to plan, the number of French troops in Mali will begin to fall from the month of March."

The Islamists have put up little resistance, many of them fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif around Kidal, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves where they are believed to be holding seven French hostages.

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