PARIS (Reuters) - French troops should be allowed to hunt down al Qaeda-linked militants beyond Mali’s borders, French army chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud said in a rare interview on Thursday.
Nine months after they were scattered across the Sahara by waves of French air strikes, Islamists in Mali are making a comeback - naming new leaders, attacking U.N. peacekeepers and killing two French journalists.
Speaking to Europe 1 radio, Guillaud also said Paris would reduce its troops in Mali to between 2,000 and 2,500 by year-end with an objective to reach its target of a 1,000-strong permanent force in Mali “during the winter.”
France retains about 3,200 soldiers in its former colony and has already delayed drawing the force down to February depending on the roll-out of a U.N. peacekeeping mission, which is so far only at half its mandated strength of 12,600 men.
When asked whether French soldiers should also be allowed to cross borders when militants leave Mali, Guillaud said:
“I think we should hunt them down everywhere. That’s why we are working with our neighbors Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad, and also cooperating with Algeria so that there is no sanctuary for them.”
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Reuters in Morocco on Thursday that France’s military presence in Mali was needed to help a region struggling against militants, who have threatened to attack French interests and have sought haven in southern Libya’s vast deserts.
The two journalists were shot by their captors shortly after being kidnapped earlier this month as they emerged from an interview with a representative of the MNLA Tuareg group in the northern desert city of Kidal, a hotbed of rebel activity.
Highlighting the continuing threat, Guillaud said French troops had fought and “neutralized” a number of militants from al Qaeda’s North African wing (AQIM) on Wednesday night, about 250 km (155 miles) west of Tessalit in the far north of Mali.
“In Mali, it’s not finished,” Guillaud said. “We need to adapt to circumstances. There are still suicide attempts, assassinations of our compatriots and there are (legislative)elections.”
The task of calming the region has been complicated by increasingly blurred lines between the Islamist militants, separatist rebels and gangs of smugglers.
Experts are starting to worry that France will get bogged down in an open-ended war if U.N. peacekeepers cannot plug the security gap.
Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Mark Heinrich