Paris - As France begins withdrawing its troops from Mali, a
top US defence official has said a UN-mandated African force was
"incapable" of taking over the battle against Islamist extremists.
Paris, which sent 4 000 troops to Mali in January to block a
feared advance on the capital Bamako by Islamist fighters, said on Tuesday it
had pulled out its first batch of soldiers preparing to hand over to an African
force of 6 300 in the coming weeks.
However, a senior Pentagon official told a congressional
hearing in Washington on Tuesday that troops from the Economic Community of
West African States were not up to the task.
"Right now, the Ecowas force isn't capable at all. What
you saw there, it is a completely incapable force. That has to change,"
said Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defence for special operations.
At the same time, he praised the French troops which
"very rapidly" pushed al-Qaeda's north African branch "back
across the Niger river and took control of the major cities" in northern
Mali, he said.
However, he added that much of the al-Qaeda leadership had
"They haven't been killed or captured, but they [the
French forces] have disrupted this very threatening sanctuary."
France says it plans to gradually pull its soldiers out of
its former colony, but will leave a permanent 1 000-strong force to fight terrorism.
The French military's chief of staff said around 100
soldiers had been withdrawn and sent to Paphos in Cyprus on Monday, where they
will spend three days in a hotel before heading back to France.
They belonged to parachute units of the army that had been
deployed in the Tessalit region of northeast Mali, where heavy fighting against
Islamists took place, said Thierry Burkhard, chief of staff spokesperson.
The Malian military - poorly paid, ill-equipped and badly
organised - fell apart last year in the face of an uprising by ethnic Tuareg
rebels who seized the vast arid north in chaos following a March coup, before
losing control to well-armed Islamists.
The extremists terrorised locals with amputations and
executions performed under their brutal interpretation of sharia Islamic law,
drawing global condemnation and prompting France's January intervention.
While French-led troops have inflicted severe losses on the
Islamists, soldiers are still battling significant pockets of resistance in
Gao, as well as in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.
France this weekend launched one of its largest actions
since its intervention - an offensive that swept a valley thought to be a
logistics base for al-Qaeda-linked Islamists near Gao.
In this region, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West
Africa (Mujao) - the most active Islamist rebel group on the ground - still has
the support of some of the population.
But the next phase involving the UN-backed West African
troops should have a realistic mission, Sheehan said, in which the peacekeepers
would be expected to secure cities but not hunt down militants in remote areas
of northern Mali.
"That type of force should be able to take back those
cities and allow the French to focus its smaller force in the future on high
value targets," he said.
According to a French intelligence expert, the Islamist
rebels' ability to inflict severe damage remains limited.
"In three months, the amount of terrorist activity has
been very low, if nearly non-existent," said Eric Denece, head of the
French Centre for Intelligence Studies.
He pointed out that out of 1 500 to 2 000 known extremists,
more than 600 were thought to have been killed.