French min visits troops in north Mali, says mission not over

BAMAKO, March 7 (Reuters) - France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian paid a surprise visit on Thursday to French forces battling Islamist rebels in rugged northern Mali, saying their military mission would not end until security was restored in the West African country.

After reviewing ranks of French soldiers near the desolate Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, Le Drian told France 24 television that Paris' aim was to help "reestablish security in the whole of Mali's territory".

"It is after that, progressively, we will hand over to an African mission under a U.N. mandate," he said. "I came to greet our forces ... (and say) that France is proud of its troops and proud of the professionalism of the operation and the way it is working out."

France said al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels' seizure of the northern two-thirds of Mali in April posed a risk to the security of Europe and the rest of West Africa.

It launched a ground and air operation on Jan. 11 to halt a push southward by Islamist rebels, and has since driven the militants out of major towns of northern Mali.

French and Chadian forces have battled die-hard Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas, near the Algerian border, for two weeks. Chad has claimed to have killed al Qaeda's two top leaders in the region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar. (Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Richard Valdmanis)