France's defense minister has made a surprise visit to the mountains of northeastern Mali, where French troops are battling Islamist militants.
Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived in the town of Tessalit early Thursday to meet with some of the 4,000 French soldiers in Mali.
Le Drian said the soldiers are "bridgeheads in this war... that France has decided to undertake against terrorist groups still in Mali."
Tessalit is in the Ifoghas mountains, where French and Chadian soldiers are hunting down militants driven from towns in northern Mali by a French-led offensive that began two months ago.
France says dozens of Islamist fighters have been killed in the fighting, along with four French soldiers, including one killed Wednesday.
On Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande said France plans to begin pulling its troops out of northern Mali in April.
France began its campaign in Mali on January 11, as al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants who controlled the north began moving in the direction of the capital, Bamako.
Analysts have warned a French withdrawal could leave northern Mali vulnerable to a renewed militant takeover. The Malian army was unable to fight the militants on its own, and a multi-nation African force being assembled needs more training and equipment to protect northern Malian towns.