PARIS (AP) — France's defense minister made a surprise visit to Mali on Thursday to see French troops fighting extremists there, as military officials said at least 100 al-Qaida-linked fighters died in a two-week campaign to oust them from a rocky desert valley that had been their key base.
French forces are in their most bloody and close-range fighting since they deployed eight weeks ago to Mali to help the West African country's embattled government rid its vast north of militants imposing harsh Islamic rule. Recent fighting has focused on the Ifoghas mountain range in northern Mali.
"We are in the last sanctuaries. It is here that the conflict and the fighting is the most violent," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said from Mali on France-2 television Thursday night. "There will be fighting tomorrow. There will be fighting in the coming days."
But he insisted that the French-led forces are making progress against what France fears was becoming a haven for international terrorism.
"In dislodging the jihadists from their last bastions, you are the spearhead of this relentless war," Le Drian told troops in Tessalit, on the north side of the Ifoghas, according to a statement from his office.
Overall, France has lost four soldiers during its campaign, while Chad lost 26 in a single assault on Feb. 22. Hundreds of militants have died since the French swept in on Jan. 11, according to French officials.
The militants have communicated very little since the French-led operation began, and access to the conflict zone for outside observers has been limited in recent weeks.
Combined Chadian and French forces swept the Amettetai Valley of the Ifoghas range by air and ground starting in mid-February.
At a news conference Thursday in Paris, military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said French forces had confirmed at least 100 insurgent deaths from the Amettatai campaign, and troops were continuing to look for those who might have fled the area. He said five insurgents — some apparently young but whose exact ages weren't known — had surrendered to the troops in recent days.
Burkhard said most of the fighters in the valley appeared to be linked to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. To the south, in a separate theater, French troops along with troops from Mali and Niger have been battling an affiliated militant group, MUJAO, east of Gao, the largest town in northeastern Mali. Fifty insurgents were killed in fighting in that area over the last week, he said.
Also Thursday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio that the French military was conducting DNA tests to verify a string of reports that two top warlords — Abou Zeid, head of one of the most violent brigades of al-Qaida's North African franchise, and former ally Moktar Belmoktar, the alleged mastermind of a deadly hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January — were killed in the fighting in northern Mali. Chad's president insists they died, but French officials have not confirmed the deaths.
The French-led operation with backing from regional bloc ECOWAS and under authorization of the U.N. Security Council has largely been hailed a success so far, though there are some concerns the militants will simply regroup once the French start drawing down troops and handing over security to an African force.
France — a former colonial ruler of Mali — has said it has no intention of keeping troops in Mali for the long term.
France had originally planned on starting to draw down troops in late March, but French President Francois Hollande announced during a trip to Poland on Wednesday that the gradual pullout of France's 4,000 troops would now start in April. Burkhard said French forces have begun planning to meet the new timetable laid out by Hollande.
Le Drian is to meet Malian President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Django Cissoko on Friday. He is also to meet with commanders of the African force meant to take over from the French as well as members of an EU mission meant to train the weak Malian army.
AP writers Sarah DiLorenzo and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.