PARIS French special forces killed around 10 militants in a gun battle in northern Mali this month, Paris said on Thursday, as simmering violence threatens security at November elections and will delay a French troop withdrawal.
France, which sent soldiers to its former colony in January to oust militants who had taken over swathes of the West African country, will not draw down troop numbers to 1,000, from 3,200 by year-end as initially planned, a spokesman confirmed.
"We want to continue our reduction of troops to 1,000 by late January, early February," armed forces spokesman Gilles Jaron told a news conference.
French officials have previously said the withdrawal could be pushed back due to planned legislative elections on November 24.
Despite the French troops and a U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), there have been several attacks this month targeting in particular Malian forces.
French special forces battled "armed terrorist groups" on October 1 in the village of Douaya, north of Timbuktu, after receiving intelligence suggesting militants were in the area, Jaron said.
Militants opened fire from a pick-up truck on a French helicopter, he said. Suspected Islamists in other vehicles escaped.
"Four hours after the start of the clashes, a large number of terrorists were neutralized, by that we mean around 10 fighters," Jaron said. "They all fought to the end without wanting to surrender at any point."
A French diplomatic source said: "The contest is not over. The terrorist groups are not completely stupid, they have been waiting for the storm to pass and they are now sensing their opportunity."
A MINUSMA source said 12 pickups with suspected Islamist militants had been sighted about 60 km (40 miles) west of Timbuktu in early October.
A local Tuareg source also said that several units linked to al Qaeda's north African arm AQIM had gathered in the region.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected in August, promising to make security a top priority as Mali battles the remnants of Islamist militant groups that occupied the northern two-thirds of the country for 10 months.
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Robin Pomeroy)