France said Thursday it will deploy 3,000 soldiers to combat Islamist violence in the vast and largely lawless Sahel region of Africa.
“Our role is to pursue counter-terrorism in north Mali, the north of Niger and in Chad,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a television interview.
“We are reorganizing our contingent so that 3,000 French soldiers are in that zone.”
Le Drian said France was “in the process of ending its frontal war phase” in Mali but added that 1,000 French soldiers will remain, based near the town of Gao in the insurgency-hit northeast of the country.
France launched a military operation in January 2013 to support the Malian army and drive back Islamists advancing on the south. They evicted the rebels from northern Mali towns seized in the wake of a coup in Bamako in 2012.
The French deployment peaked at 5,000 troops, but Paris had pledged to reduce its presence to 1,000 troops by early 2014.
“A certain number of jihadist groups still want to regroup in the North,” said Le Drian.
“There are far fewer of them but they have nothing to lose, they have abandoned their lives, so we must fight with extreme precision against any attempt to regroup.
But he said the conflict had entered “a different phase” with U.N. forces now present in the country and the Malian army rebuilding itself.
Underlining the continued threat in the region, a French soldier was killed by an improvised explosive device overnight, the French presidency said.
The death brings he number of French soldiers killed in Mali to eight.
Le Drian said northern Mali remains a “zone of danger, of trafficking of all types”.
“We will stay there as long as it takes. There is no time limit.”