PARIS (Reuters) - France has started withdrawing its troops from Mali after an operation to help local forces push back an offensive by Islamist rebels, an army spokesman said on Tuesday.
Paris aims to complete the withdrawal of 3,000 soldiers this year and will keep a permanent 1,000-strong combat force in the former colony to support a U.N. peacekeeping mission of African forces.
Despite concerns over persistent Islamist attacks in the north and the lack of security in many areas, France is pressing Mali's interim government to organize national elections to complete a democratic transition after a March 2012 coup.
"It's the start of the pullout," Thierry Burkhard said. "The aim is to be down to 2,000 in July."
Burkhard said that about 100 men from a parachute regiment that had been based in Tessalit, in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, had now left Mali.
On Monday, France launched a major operation north of Gao, a city about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) north of the capital Bamako, highlighting French efforts to establish military control across the country before U.N. peacekeepers arrive.
Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, is a former stronghold of the MUJWA Islamist group which held the town for about 10 months, imposing a violent form of Islamic law. Burkhard said operation "Gustav" was ongoing.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for the deployment of a U.N. mission of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in Mali once major combat ends.
This would include thousands of African troops already in Mali to support France's three-month-old military campaign, which has swept Islamist rebels out of the towns of northern Mali and into remote desert and mountain hideouts.
Speaking at a security conference near the southern French city of Bordeaux, Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said the French withdrawal process would not be hurried.
"It's logical that we pull out progressively, but it will be done slowly and in a clear and pragmatic way," he said.
France hopes the U.N. peacekeeping force will be approved by the Security Council by the end of April for deployment by end-June or early July, in time for scheduled elections in Mali.
Paris has pledged to eradicate the Islamist enclave in Mali's north and has said repeatedly that it threatens the West.
Reporting by John Irish in Paris and Claude Canellas in Bordeaux; Editing by Louise Ireland