France expects to begin withdrawing its soldiers from Mali "starting in March, if all goes as planned", French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a newspaper interview to be published Wednesday.
"I think that starting in March, if all goes as planned, the number of French troops could be reduced," Fabius told the daily Metro. Nearly 4,000 French soldiers are currently deployed in Mali in an operation against Islamist militants.
"France does not want to remain permanently in Mali. It is the Africans and the Malians themselves who must guarantee security, the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country," Fabius said.
"That is why we are going to, progressively, pass the baton to AFISMA (the African military mission to Mali). We ourselves are going to continue to act in the north where there remain terrorist pockets," he added.
Fabius called the first phase of the operation "very effective in blocking the terrorist groups and retaking cities" in the north.
"The narco-terrorist groups have been stopped.... (but) we have to remain on our guard in Mali as in the neighbouring countries... the risk is still there," he said.
France launched a military intervention in Mali on January 11 to push back an advance towards the capital Bamako by Islamist fighters who last year seized control of large swathes of the north of the country.