PARIS French and Chadian forces expect to have secured the northeast region of Mali that is the stronghold of Islamist militants by end-March, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French media.
Le Drian said that while the results of DNA tests were still being awaited, it seemed likely that top al Qaeda leaders in the region had been killed in recent fighting and that is was now a matter of flushing out foot soldiers.
His view on the timetable was in line with France's goal to start winding down its eight-week-old military intervention in Mali in April and handing over to African forces.
"We are taking back this territory almost meter by meter. There will doubtless be other violent battles. Three weeks from now, if all goes as planned, we will have covered all of this territory," Le Drian told Le Monde in an interview published Monday.
Asked whether that meant the rebels' sanctuary around the Ifoghas mountains would be safe, even if some Islamist militants were still hiding out there, Le Drian said: "Overall security will have been restored in this space. I am not going to tell you that we are going to hunt them down to the last man."
Le Drian said on Friday at the end of a brief visit to Mali that French forces were now deep in the Islamists' stronghold in the remote valleys of northern Mali and had uncovered big caches of weapons stockpiled by the al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
Chad has said its soldiers killed al Qaeda's two top leaders in the region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar. If true, that would be a major coup, but Le Drian cautioned that hundreds of lower level militants had been found in the area.
"We have clearly killed leaders and lower-level chiefs. Even if it still needs to be confirmed, it's likely that Abou Zeid is gone. That does not solve everything," he told Le Monde.
He said the fact that neighboring countries had shut their borders with Mali made it harder to hunt down fighters, including mercenaries, who had fled abroad.
(Reporting by Catherine Bremer; editing by Mark John)