French troops may pull out of Mali next month, handing over to a still-developing Malian military. The announcement comes as troops secure the key northern city of Kidal.

France could withdraw Mali troops from March (R)

The potential withdrawal, floated by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in a newspaper interview, comes as French aircraft and troops target suspected hideouts of Islamist fighters in the sparsely populated Saharan desert.

There are fears that the extremists who have fled Mali's cities during the three-week French-led operation could try to stage attacks from remote bases.

The French foreign minister is quoted in France's Metro newspaper as saying, "I think that starting in March, if everything goes as planned, the number of our troops should diminish."

Mr Fabius, whose office tweeted the newspaper story, stressed that threats from jihadists remain and that the fight isn't over yet, but that ultimately Africans and Malians themselves need to take responsibility for the region's security. He was later quoted by the Reuters news agency saying that he would like UN a peacekeeping force to be in place in Mali by April.

France has some 4,000 troops in Mali as of Tuesday, a French military official said - that's about the same number as France had at the height of its 11-year military presence in Afghanistan. Its most recent operation involved forces from France and Chad securing a key bastion in northern Mali - the city of Kidal.

Read more on Mali from International Editor Lindsey Hilsum

France launched the Mali operation last month to drive back al-Qaeda-linked extremists who had seized the north of the country, imposing harsh rule on local populations, and had started pushing toward Mali's capital. France's government fears the region could become a haven for international terrorists.

A UN diplomat said on Tuesday that the French are talking about another month or so of active engagement in Mali, with one aim being the interruption of supplies to the extremists.

UN peacekeeping

The UN Security Council is likely to wait until the end of February, when the military action has hopefully ended, to adopt a new resolution authorizing a UN peacekeeping force for Mali, the diplomat said. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Mali conflict.

As French troops focus farther north, they are moving out of cities they seized earlier in the operation. They are already expected to start handing control of Timbuktu to African forces this week. Extremists had overtaken Timbuktu last year; French forces pushed them out last month and French President Francois Hollande arrived in the city to accolades from its residents.

Officials say some 3,800 forces from other African states are in Mali backing up the weak Malian army.

The spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu, Captain Samba Coulibaly, said there is no reason for the population to fear the withdrawal of French troops.

"With the size of the force we have here right now, we can maintain security in the town of Timbuktu," he said.

"The departure of the French soldiers does not scare us, especially since their air force will still be present both in Timbuktu and Sevare. They control this entire zone and can intervene within a matter of minutes in order to carry out airstrikes as needed."

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