French troops kill 'hundreds' of Islamist fighters in Mali

Story highlights

  • France launched an offensive last month against militants in its former colony
  • It says it has 4,000 French soldiers in Mali
  • French troops are fighting alongside nearly 3,800 African soldiers

A monthlong French offensive has killed "hundreds" of Islamist fighters in Mali, the French defense minister said, as his troops prepare to start withdrawing next month.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gave the number of casualties to CNN affiliate BFM on Tuesday night. He did not offer additional details.

Read more: French leader makes jubilant trip to Mali

Hours earlier, France told the local Metro newspaper that it expects to begin withdrawing its troops out of Mali in March and leave African forces in control.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said despite the withdrawal, troops will continue operations to flush out militants in "some terrorist havens" in northern Mali.

At Mali's request, France launched the offensive against militants in its former colony last month. The ground-and-air campaign has sent Islamist fighters who had seized the northern region fleeing into the vast desert.

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French President Francois Hollande visited Timbuktu last week, just days after French forces had freed the fabled city from Islamist militants.

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    French-led troops now control Timbuktu and the city of Gao, along with a swath in between the two that was an Islamist stronghold for almost a year.

    Troops are working to secure Kindal, the last major city under the grip of militants.

    Over the past two days, sandstorms have hampered operations across the country.

    Read more: Should we still fear al Qaeda?

    Islamic extremists carved out a large portion of the north last year after a chaotic military coup.

    They banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and destroyed historic tombs and shrines in the region. World leaders feared that the al Qaeda-linked militants would turn the area into a terrorist haven.

    France says it has 4,000 soldiers in Mali. Its troops are fighting alongside nearly 3,800 African soldiers, it said, a number expected to go up.

    Read more: What's behind the instability in Mali?