French minister visits Mali amid doubts over withdrawal

BAMAKO Fri Apr 5, 2013 10:41am EDT

France's Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius attends a conference on Mali in Lyon, March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Pratta

France's Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius attends a conference on Mali in Lyon, March 19, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Pratta

BAMAKO (Reuters) - France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius laid out plans to start withdrawing French troops from Mali before elections in July on a visit to the West African nation on Friday, despite a recent spate of attacks by Islamist rebels.

France intervened dramatically in January against Islamist rebels controlling Mali's north, saying they were a threat to Western security.

Paris plans to halve its troop presence to 2,000 by July and is pressing its former colony to quickly hold elections to complete a democratic transition after a 2012 coup.

"We are in Mali to discuss the electoral process and also take stock of the security situation," Fabius told journalists after meeting with the Malian president, adding that Malian authorities were committed to the election time frame.

Fabius held talks with Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore and met the country's prime minister, foreign minister, political parties and civil society groups during a whirlwind trip to the capital Bamako.

France launched a lightning ground and air offensive on January 11 against al Qaeda-linked militants who had occupied northern Mali, driving them from the cities into remote desert and mountain bases.

But many observers have questioned plans for a swift drawdown of France's 4,000 troops in light of the ongoing Islamist insurgency and delays in reconciliation talks with Tuareg rebels, whose uprising led to the Islamist occupation.

The Islamist insurgents attacked the northern city of Timbuktu for the second time in a fortnight last week, promising to "open the gates of hell," when the French leave.

Fabius told the French parliament on Wednesday that the security situation in Mali was improving and attention should turn to political and economic development.

Doubts, however, persists over Mali's readiness to hold elections in three months.

The Tuareg rebellion and military coup in March 2012 ended state control over the three northern regions of Goa, Timbuktu and Kidal and the government is struggling to reestablish a presence there.

Mariam Diallo, an analyst with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, said the July date for the elections was not feasible and could lead to further problems in Mali.

"Everything is in chaos and trying rush the elections could be problematic," she told Reuters.

"Most politicians are just returning to Mali: they need to reorganize themselves and start campaigning. It is not certain they will be able to campaign in the north because security is a problem and people cannot travel," she said.

Diallo added that there were still problems, such as the question of displaced people and the electoral register. She said Mali should be given the time to solve these issues rather than being pressured to hold elections.

(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Giles Elgood)

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