France is fighting a "real war" with "terrorists" near the Malian town of Gao, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday.
With 4,000 troops, the French military intervention in Mali has reached its "maximum level," he said. Le Drian and other high-ranking French officials confirmed a possible withdrawal of France's 4,000 troops could begin in the next few weeks, although French and Malian troops continue to fight Islamist militants.
However Le Drian denied that the military action was effectively over, saying French forces were engaged Tuesday in clashes with "terrorists" around the city of Gao, leading to "significant losses" among "residual" groups of Islamists around the city.
"We are going after them, to build security around the towns," he told Europe 1 radio.
In barely one month, French troops and their African allies have taken all the major towns held by the Islamists across a vast swathe of Malian territory.
The focus is now turning to rooting out the rebels from bases in country's desert north and disrupting supply lines linking them to Al Qaeda related groups in neighboring nations. France's other task will be helping the rebuilding of military and civilian structures in Mali, which was held up as a successful West African democracy before last year's rebel incursions.
As French troops continue to drive Islamist militants out of towns and the main settlements of northern Mali, France looks to withdraw from Mali and pass responsibility onto African replacement forces.
A "progressive move from a French military presence to an African military presence" may happen "in a few weeks," Le Drian said.
An unnamed French government spokeswoman told the BBC that President Hollande would like to start bringing troops home by March:
"The president confirmed this morning that if everything goes to plan, the number of French troops in Mali will begin to fall from the month of March," the spokeswoman said.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview that, starting in March, “the number of French troops should fall.”
“France has no intention of remaining in Mali,” he said. “It is the Africans and the Malians themselves to guarantee the security, the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of the country.”
On Tuesday, Le Drian said "hundreds" of rebels had been killed, though he would not give an exact number. The month-long offensive has killed one French serviceman, a helicopter pilot, and 11 Malian soldiers, according to The New York Times.
CNN reports on the latest developments: