French troops kill ‘hundreds’ of Islamist fighters in Mali

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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

France expects to begin pulling its troops out of Mali in March, the French foreign minister told the Metro newspaper.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said troops will continue operations in northern Mali, where he said “some terrorist havens remain.”

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

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

Read more: Six reasons events in Mali matter

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

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.

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Islamic extremists carved out a large portion of the north last year, taking advantage of a chaotic situation after a 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 has 2,150 soldiers in Mali and 1,000 more troops supporting the operation from elsewhere.

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

CNN’s Pierre Meilhan contributed to this report.