Mali conflict: Hollande sets French troop timetable

French troops in Mali, March 2013 France wants to start withdrawing troops from Mali next month

France will reduce the number of its troops fighting in Mali to 1,000 by the end of the year, President Francois Hollande says.

"We have achieved our objectives," Mr Hollande said in a TV interview.

He said troop levels would be halved to 2,000 by July. Withdrawals are due to start next month.

A French-led intervention that began in January has taken back the main cities of northern Mali from Islamist groups, though fighting continues in the north.

Mr Hollande acknowledged that one goal, the release of six French hostages being held in the Sahel, had still not been achieved.

He stressed that France would not pay ransoms to get the hostages freed. It is feared that one of the hostages has already been killed.

The French president also said he was determined that Mali should hold elections as planned in July, though he said France would not back any favoured candidate.

"The time when France chose African heads of state is over," he told France 2 TV channel in a wide-ranging interview.

Islamist groups took over major cities, including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, in the aftermath of a coup in March 2012. They imposed a strict form of Islamic law in the area.

France intervened after saying the al-Qaeda-linked militants threatened to march on the capital, Bamako.

Troops from several West African countries have been deploying to Mali to take over from the French-led mission.

The African force currently numbers about 6,300 soldiers.

Mr Hollande said the French troops left in Mali at the end of the year would probably be part of a UN peacekeeping mission that France has called on the Security Council to set up.

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