Nearly a month after launching an offensive in Mali to drive out Islamist extremists, France mulled the withdrawal of its troops Thursday after asking the UN to prepare a peacekeeping force to take the baton.
France’s intervention has largely driven the Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, who controlled northern Mali for 10 months and had threatened to advance on the capital, to the remote mountains of the far northeast, along the Algerian border.
But French-led forces continue to come under attack in reclaimed territory, and with fears of a prolonged insurgency, Paris is keen to hand over the military burden.
The French defence ministry said that the intervention in its former colony has already cost France 70 million euros ($95 million), with the figure rising by 2.7 million euros per day.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the French-led operation had so far killed “several hundred” Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
“This is a real war with significant losses but I’m not going to get into an accounting exercise,” he said when asked about the toll.
France’s sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot killed at the start of the operation. Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded in early fighting but has not since released a new death toll.
A spokesman for one of the rebel groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), said: “The combat isn’t over. The attacks are going to continue.”
French helicopters have been patrolling the road between Gao and Douentza, 250 miles to the southwest along the road that leads to the capital, Bamako.
The area is littered with land mines and improvised explosive devices, according to security sources.
Two Malian soldiers were killed last week when their vehicle drove over a mine outside Douentza.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a peacekeeping force could be in place by April, incorporating troops being deployed under the banner of a West African intervention force, AFISMA, into a UN mission.
“Once security is assured, we can certainly envisage, without changing the structures, that this takes place in the framework of a peacekeeping operation,” Fabius told journalists in Paris.
“This gives the advantage of being under the umbrella of the United Nations, under its financing,” he said.
France’s ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, said it would take “several weeks” to make an assessment on sending peacekeepers.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous acknowledged objections raised by the Bamako transitional government but said such a force is supported by the African Union, the Community of West African States and key UN members.