DAKAR, SENEGAL — French President Francois Hollande said that French troops will begin pulling out of Mali in April. French, Malian and Chadian troops continue to face resistance from Islamist militants in the north, and analysts say the militant threat to both northern Mali and the greater Sahel region is far from neutralized.
Hollande said the French military campaign in Mali that began on January 11 is in its "ultimate phase."
He said this is the final stage because they have succeeded in all the other stages: the liberation of the major towns and the securing of Mali's national territory. He said this last stage will last for the whole month of March, and beginning in April there will be a decrease in the number of French soldiers in Mali - as soon as the African forces take over with support from the Europeans.
Hollande spoke Wednesday in Poland, as French and Chadian troops continue to face fierce resistance in the Ifoghas mountains of far northeastern Mali.
The area is the longtime hideout of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. It is where some of the fighters from the various al-Qaida-linked groups who controlled northern Mali for 10 months are believed to have fled.
The French say they have recovered impressive caches of weapons in the Ifoghas and are reporting dozens of Islamists captured or killed.
Chad says its troops in that zone killed two key AQIM field commanders - Abu Zeid and Mohktar Belmokhtar. Confirmation remains sketchy, however, and Paris has been circumspect.
On Wednesday, Hollande said the French would reveal more information in coming days on "successes" in the Ifoghas, including the killing of certain "terrorist leaders," though he didn't name anyone.
French and Malian forces also are trying to round up Islamist fighters holed up in villages around the northern town of Gao.
France lost its fourth soldier Wednesday since the start of the campaign in a rebel ambush 100 kilometers east of Gao. The French army said the Malian army, backed up by French airpower, killed 30 Islamists in that engagement.
The question of what will happen when the French withdraw has been persistent since the first French airstrike in January.
Sahel security experts, like J. Peter Pham of the Washington-based Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, say it is dangerous to underestimate the number of militants who are "biding their time," as well as the work still needed to properly train and equip the regional African force, which so far has been slow to deploy.
"If the French do withdraw most of their 4,000 troops, you're going to have a relatively weak African force, poorly trained, heading right into the rainy season without the strength of the French forces, facing militants who have gone to ground or gone to the mountains or wherever now, crawling back out and potentially launching asymmetric attacks all throughout the rainy season that could turn the African forces into little more than defending isolated garrisons," said Pham.
Jihadist groups in northern Mali repeatedly pledged revenge attacks against France and any African countries joining the regional force.
Militants so far have carried out three suicide bombings targeting the towns of Gao and Kidal in northern Mali.