Timbuktu: French troops on Thursday began to withdraw from Timbuktu after securing the fabled city as they ramped up their mission in another northern Mali city in search of Islamist extremists.
But while the population of Timbuktu is worried that the departure of French troops will open the door for the Islamists to return, French military officials said they had fulfilled their mission there.
"We have succeeded in handing over the majority of our responsibilities to the Malian Army... But we will not leave the city of Timbuktu completely," said Captain Franck, an official with the French operation code-named Serval, after a sub-Saharan wildcat. He gave only his first name in keeping with military protocol.
He said some French forces will stay because "once we are gone, these people will come back in order to trouble the population. At the same time, we can`t stay indefinitely".
Still, for residents of this desert capital of Timbuktu, which was subjected to 10 months of often-brutal Shariah rule, the departure of the troops is premature.
"It really worries me to see the French military leave right away," said Abdel Kader Konta, the village chief of Korioume, the locality from which the troops were embarking onto the barge. "We think it`s too early for them to leave because the Islamists have not fully quit the city. Some of the Islamists have simply shaved their beards and blended into the population. Before the French leave, they should assure themselves that security has been restored."
French President Francois Hollande has said France could begin withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali as early as March.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Thursday reiterated that stance saying that the administration was sticking to its schedule and emphasising on the need for political as well as military action.
"Our objective cannot be achieved with arms only," Fabius said in an interview on French television BFM.
Meanwhile, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard yesterday said that the operation to secure Gao was still under way, nearly two weeks after French and Malian troops moved into the area.
There is a risk of "residual presence" of terrorists mixed among the population, Burkhard said from Paris. Extremists had fired rocket launchers at French troops near Gao on Tuesday.
France launched a military operation in Mali on January 11 to help the Malian government restore control. Islamist extremists linked to al Qaeda had taken over northern Mali before pushing towards the capital last month.