BAMAKO, MALI— Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Friday France would stick to plans to reduce its military presence in Mali ahead of elections in July, and he called on Tuareg rebels to lay down their arms so the vote could go ahead.
Visiting the Malian capital Bamako for talks with the interim government, Fabius said France would proceed with plans to cut its military presence from late April despite attacks by Islamist fighters in northern cities.
France intervened dramatically on January 11 to halt a southward Islamist offensive, saying their enclave in northern Mali was a threat to Western security.
A three-month campaign swept the al Qaeda-linked militants from northern Mali's cities into remote desert and mountains, where Tuareg fighters have helped France and their Chadian allies to track down pockets of militants.
Paris plans to halve its troop presence to 2,000 by July and is pressing its former colony to quickly organize elections to complete a democratic transition after a 2012 coup, potentially opening the door to greater international assistance.
"There has been progress on the security level," Fabius told a news conference in Bamako. "It is best that the elections are held. Our Malian partners say they want that and it is possible. The target is July and everything is being done to respect that deadline."
Fabius called on the MNLA Tuareg separatist rebels, who seized control of the northeast region around the remote town of Kidal after Islamists fled, to lay down their arms and take part in the political process.
"All groups including the MNLA must accept to be confined to barracks and disarm," Fabius said, after meeting with Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore. "We wish to see the official reopening of negotiations."
'Everything in chaos'
Many observers have questioned plans for a swift reduction of France's 4,000 troops in light of the continuing Islamist insurgency and a freeze in peace talks with Tuareg rebels.
Islamist insurgents attacked the northern city of Timbuktu for the second time in a fortnight last week, promising to "open the gates of hell" when the French leave.
The success of a Tuareg uprising early last year sparked the military coup in Bamako in March 2012, but the northern rebellion was soon hijacked by Islamist groups.
Mali's government is still struggling to reestablish control in the three northern regions of Goa, Timbuktu and Kidal, making the organization of elections complicated.
Mariam Diallo, an analyst with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, said the July date for the elections was not feasible and could lead to further problems in Mali.
"Everything is in chaos and trying rush the elections could be problematic," she told Reuters, saying Mali should be given the time to solve these issues rather than being pressured.
"Most politicians are just returning to Mali: they need to reorganize themselves and start campaigning. It is not certain they will be able to campaign in the north because security is a problem and people cannot travel," she said.
Meeting the timetable
Diallo added that there were still problems, such as the question of displaced people and the electoral register.
A French diplomatic source said there was no reason to believe that delaying elections would significantly change the situation on the ground and there was an urgent need to put a legitimate administration in place.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said the gold- and cotton-producing nation was capable of meeting the timetable.
"Refugees and those displaced internally by the crisis could vote in their camps. It is technically possible," he said.