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French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in 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.
The ministry said he started his visit in the Amettetai valley in the Ifoghas mountains, where French and Chadian troops have been hunting down rebels driven from northern Mali's main cities by a lightning intervention launched in mid-January.
"By dislodging jihadists from their final bastions, you are the bridgeheads in this war... that France has decided to undertake against the terrorist groups still in Mali," Le Drian said in a ministry statement.
"On you, and with our brothers in the Chadian army... rests a large part of the success" of the military intervention, he said.
Interviewed by France 24 television in northeastern Mali, Le Drian said he wanted to pay homage to two soldiers killed in the northern mountains in recent days. France has so far lost four soldiers in the fighting.
"I wanted to salute our soldiers... because it is here that fighting has been at its hardest," 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."
Some 4,000 French soldiers are deployed in Mali to fight alongside Malian and West African troops against the Islamist rebels.