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French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in northeastern Mali on Thursday to meet French troops fighting Islamist rebels, the ministry said.
He was to visit several cities, including the capital Bamako, and was due in the northern city of Gao at mid-day.
"I wanted to salute our soldiers... because it is here that fighting has been at its hardest," Le Drian said on France 24 television at the start of his visit.
Noting that two French soldiers had been killed in Mali's northern mountains in recent days, Le Drian said: "I want to pay homage to them and salute their comrades. I wanted to tell them that France is proud of its soldiers."
"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."