France reassured Mali Friday that French troops would not be withdrawn “overnight” while proposing to keep a permanent force of 1,000 French troops stationed in Mali to fight against Islamist insurgency.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, on a visit to Malian capital Bamako, said France would go ahead with plans to withdraw its troops from the end of April, but proposed to keep a combat force in Mali to support a future U.N. peacekeeping mission, Reuters news agency reported.
France deployed troops in Mali Jan. 11 this year to contain the expansion of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had established strongholds in northern Mali since April 2012 and had been posing a threat to Bamako, the capital.
France now has more than 4,000 troops on the ground in the country, including 1,200 deployed in the northeast, carrying out clean-up operations after a reportedly successful crackdown on the Islamist rebels.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called last week for the deployment of a U.N. mission of up to 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in Mali once France starts pulling out the majority of its troops.
France expects the Security Council to pass a resolution in April approving the deployment of a peacekeeping force, which is expected to be in place by July.
The majority of it would come from a West African force, known as the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). The African force in Mali currently numbers about 6,300 soldiers.
"France has proposed, to the United Nations and to the Malian government, a French support force of 1,000 men which would be permanent, based in Mali, and equipped to fight terrorism," Reuters quoted Fabius as saying at a news conference in Bamako.
He urged the Malian government to begin a reconciliation process, while calling for elections this summer, adding that it was possible to have a legally elected president by July.
"There's a unanimous desire for the elections to happen as planned and the date agreed was for July,” Fabius was quoted as saying by the BBC.
"It has always been understood that there should be presidential followed by parliamentary elections, and that has been set for July,” he said.
An EU mission began training Malian soldiers as part of efforts to better equip the country to counter the insurgency.
The first of four Malian battalions are training under European instructors at the Koulikoro base some 60km (37 miles) from the capital. The first fully trained battalion is expected to be operational in July, according to the BBC.