FRENCH and Malian troops are fighting Islamist rebels in the Sahara outside northern Mali's biggest town, France's defence minister has said, describing the desert campaign against al Qa'ida as a "real war" that was far from won.
After driving the Islamists from northern Mali's main towns with three weeks of air strikes and a lightning ground advance, France is now pursuing them in the remote northeast, where pro-autonomy Tuaregs are pressing their own territorial claims.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French and Malian joint patrols were searching the scrubland outside the desert trading towns of Timbuktu and Gao. Gao residents said the town had been hit by rebel rockets fired from the bush.
"There were clashes yesterday at Gao because, from the moment where our forces, supported by the Malian forces, started undertaking missions and patrols around the towns we had taken, we encountered Jihadist groups that fought," Le Drian told Europe 1 radio. "It's a real war."
With just 4,000 ground troops in an area the size of Texas, France has appealed for the swift deployment of a UN-backed African military force to help secure the region, and says it expects to start pulling its troops out from March.
The African deployment has been slowed by lack of transport and equipment, but Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris that France wanted the African force to be converted into a UN peacekeeping force by April.
"From the moment that security is assured, we can envisage – without changing the structures – that it can be placed under the framework of UN peacekeeping operations," he said.
France has said that several hundred Islamist fighters have been killed since it intervened In Mali on January 11 to turn back an Islamist column advancing south toward the capital.
With logistical support from Washington and European allies, it wants to restore stability and remove the threat of Islamists using Mali as a base to launch attacks in Africa and the West.
French troops are cooperating with Tuareg pro-autonomy MNLA rebels who say they have occupied the remote northeastern town of Kidal and surrounding areas after the Islamist fighters fled French air strikes into the nearby Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.