Paris - Clashes between French troops and Islamist fighters
in Mali killed a French soldier and around 10 rebels, defence officials said
Wednesday, as President Francois Hollande claimed the operation had wiped out
Hollande did not name the Islamist leaders killed in
operations in the Ifoghas mountains in Mali's far northeast, prolonging doubt
around Chad's claims that its forces have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the
mastermind of a January raid on an Algerian gas plant that left 38 hostages
"The terrorist kingpins have been destroyed,"
Hollande said during a visit to Warsaw for a six-nation European Union defence
The French leader, whose decision to intervene in Mali
nearly two months ago has so far met broad approval at home, also said France
would begin pulling its troops out in April, a month later than previously
The "final phase" of the French intervention in
the troubled west African country "will last through March and from April
there will be a decrease in the number of French soldiers in Mali as African
forces will take over, supported by the Europeans," he said.
France had said in early February that French troop numbers -
now around 4 000 - would decrease from March if all went according to plan.
But the French-led operation, which initially met little
resistance as it pushed al-Qaeda-linked Islamists from the northern towns they
had occupied for 10 months, has since come under attack in insurgent-style
guerrilla raids and suicide bombings.
Paris is keen for the United Nations to incorporate some 8 000
African troops currently being deployed to Mali into a UN peacekeeping force.
Hollande's remarks came after Sergeant Wilfried Pingaud, 37,
became the fourth French soldier to die in action since the intervention began.
He was a member of the 68th African Artillery Regiment based in Valbonne in the
south of France.
Pingaud died in exchanges with a group of Islamist fighters
that erupted as French and Malian troops carried out an operation to secure an
area about 100km east of Gao, the largest city in the north.
Four Malian soldiers were wounded in the clash.