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France withdraws first soldiers from Mali

France has withdrawn around 100 soldiers from Mali, the army announced on Tuesday.

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The military's chief of staff said they had been withdrawn and sent to Paphos in Cyprus on Monday, where they will spend three days in a hotel before heading back to France.

French president François Hollande said last month that by July only about 2000 French soldiers will still be in Mali, compared to 4000 today.

Paris plans to leave a permanent 1,000-strong force to fight terrorism.

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 desert city of Timbuktu.

A French force of 1000 soldiers this weekend launched Operation Gustav, one of the largest offensives since France’s intervention, sweeping a valley thought to be a logistics base for Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists near Gao.

French soldiers will spend the coming days combing the 20-kilometre valley, with the help of Malian soldiers and police officers going into the nomad camps and mud houses which line the dry river basin.

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 according to an intelligence expert, the Islamist rebels' ability to inflict severe damage remains limited.

Meanwhile, the president of the European Parliament Defence sub-commission, French MP Arnaud Danjean, just back from a visit to Mali, told journalists in Brussels on Monday that Malian leaders were dreading the withdrawal of French forces.

He said there were serious doubts about the feasibility of organising elections in Mali in July, as promised by Malian authorities.

Meanwhile, France’s finance minister Pierre Moscovici confirmed on Monday that there will be a donors conference for Mali on 15 September in Brussels.

The conference will be co-chaired by European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and French president François Hollande
 

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