Mali is slowly being liberated: French foreign minister

PARIS Mon Jan 28, 2013 4:13am EST

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PARIS (Reuters) - A French-led offensive in Mali that forced out al Qaeda-allied Islamist insurgents from the towns of Gao and Timbuktu at the weekend shows that Mali is slowly being freed, the French foreign minister said on Monday.

"Little by little, Mali is being liberated," Laurent Fabius told France 2 television.

But Fabius cautioned that armed fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, who had sought to impose Islamic law in the vast desert area, were now hiding and could reappear.

"The terrorist groups are carrying out a strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north, primarily in Mali," Fabius warned. He declined to say whether France would intervene again if the militants returned.

Weekend gains by French and Malian forces capped a two-week offensive, involving warplanes and ground troops, launched to halt a southward push toward the capital, Bamako, by the loose coalition of Islamic militants.

French and Malian armored columns forced fighters out of the central Malian towns of Diabaly and Douentza last week, and in recent days have inched their way northward.

"We are winning back a series of towns with the Malians," said Fabius, adding that troops from an African intervention force were preparing to deploy. Soldiers from Chad and Nigeria are already on the ground.

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage)

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