French clash with Islamists in 'real war' to win back north

French and Malian troops clashed with Islamist rebels near the large town of Gao, Paris said Wednesday after reporting that hundreds of insurgents had been killed in a "real war" to reclaim northern Mali.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the extremist rebels, who have been driven from key strongholds which they had controlled in northern Mali for 10 months, struck back at troops with rocket fire on Tuesday.

"There were clashes yesterday around Gao," Le Drian said on Europe 1 radio. "Once our troops, supported by Malian forces, started patrols around the towns that we have taken, they met residual jihadist groups who are still fighting.

"We will go after them. We are securing the towns we have been able to take along with the Malian forces. The jihadists around Gao were using rockets yesterday."

The confirmation of clashes comes after one of the militant groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), said it had attacked military positions in Gao, the largest city in the north.

"The combat isn't over. The attacks are going to continue," MUJAO's Abou Dardar told AFP.

On Tuesday, Le Drian said "several hundred" Al Qaeda-linked militants had been killed by French air strikes as well as "direct combat in the key central and northern towns of Konna and Gao.

"This is a real war with significant losses but I'm not going to get into an accounting exercise," he said Wednesday when asked about the toll.

France's sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot killed at the start of the military operation 27 days ago.

Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded after the battle at Konna last month but has not since released a new death toll.

The Malian army took "some prisoners, not many, who will have to answer to Malian courts and to international justice," Le Drian said, adding that some of those detained were high-ranking militants.

Nearly 4,000 French troops have deployed in Mali since the former colonial power swept to the country's aid on January 11 as a triad of Islamist groups pushed south towards the capital. This number will not be increased.

The force matches the size of the French deployment in Afghanistan at its height in 2010.

While President Francois Hollande has said his troops will remain in Mali for as long as they are needed, Paris is keen to step back and let some 8,000 African troops take the reigns.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told daily newspaper Metro in an interview published Wednesday that soldiers will begin withdrawing "in March, if all goes as planned".

"France has no intention of remaining in Mali for the long-term. It is up to the Africans and to the Malians themselves to guarantee the country's security, territorial integrity and sovereignty."

While asserting that the "narco-terrorists have been stopped," Fabius stressed that "the risk is always present."

The Islamists have put up little resistance, many of them fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif around Kidal, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves where they are believed to be holding seven French hostages.

Kidal, the last key bastion of the Islamists, is now under control of French forces and some 1,800 Chadian troops, but fighter jets continue to pound the region around the remote desert outpost.

With the fighters hidden in familiar terrain, soldiers are hoping to flush them out by cutting them off from supplies.

Meanwhile a Tuareg separatist rebel group who kickstarted Mali's descent into chaos with a rebellion for independence last year, said it is working with France against "terrorists" in the region.

The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) linked up with the radical Islamists in its bid to secure independence for the desert nomad Tuareg people, who have long felt marginalised by Mali's government.

But after being chased from their strongholds by the militants, they have voiced a willingness to negotiate since France intervened.

The MNLA said on Wednesday it had retaken the town of Menaka, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the Niger border, which Nigerien troops had taken from militant occupiers but then left as they continued their advance.

The group has also said it was responsible for Sunday's arrest of two top Islamist leaders.

Le Drian said France had "functional relations" with the group in Kidal but that fighting terrorists alongside them was "not our objective."