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French defence minister on surprise visit to north Mali

Reuters/ECPAD/Adj. Nicolas Richard/Handout

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited the “last bastions” Islamist militias in northern Mali on a surprise visit Thursday. “The mission is not over,” he told France 24 TV.

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Le Drian arrived in Gao, the main town in the north, after a morning in the Ametettai valley in the Ifogha mountains, the area near the Algerian border where armed Islamist groups took refuge from the French-led offensive launched in January.

Dossier: War in Mali

“In driving the jihadis out of their last bastions you are the bridgehead of this war without let-up that France has decided to wage against the terrorist groups that are still on the loose in Mali,” he told the troops, according to a ministerial statement.

Le Drian went on to hail the “suffering” and “courage” of Chadian forces who are also fighting in the area.

Earlier, talking to RFI’s sister TV station France 24, he paid homage to the two French soldiers killed in the area and made it clear that the military intervention is set to continue.

"The mission is not over,” he said. “It is later that we will progressively withdraw to hand over to the African mission under the United Nations."

After visiting Gao, Le Drian was to go on to the capital, Bamako.

French forces have killed about 150 Islamists in ground combat in the Ametettai valley, the military announced Thursday.

Chadian forces say they have killed about 100 rebels and lost about 25 soldiers.

The minister was shown weapons seized from the militias, including three Russian 122mm guns, machine-guns and rocket-launchers.

It is “probable that some of the terrorists have managed to escape”, according to French army spokesperson Thierry Burckhard.

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