DAKAR (Reuters) - Chad will withdraw its troops from Mali where they risk being bogged down in guerrilla war after helping to drive Islamists from northern towns, President Idriss Deby said in comments broadcast on Sunday.
His words came days after a suicide bomber killed three Chadian troops in the northern town of Kidal, demonstrating how al Qaeda-linked Islamists are still able to strike in the heavily-defended towns they once controlled.
Some 2,000 Chadians have fought alongside French troops in the heaviest fighting to drive Islamists from remote northern towns, mountains and deserts they previously occupied.
“Face-to-face fighting with the Islamists is over. The Chadian army does not have the skills to fight a shadowy, guerrilla-style war that is taking place in northern Mali,” Deby told French media, including TV5 Monde, RFI and Le Monde.
“Our soldiers will return to Chad. They have accomplished their mission. We have already withdrawn a mechanised battalion,” he added in the interview.
Deby said Chadian troops, selected to accompany the French as they are among the region’s best, would be available for an eventual 10,000-strong United Nations force to be deployed once combat operations wind down.
Only last month, and citing an earlier suicide attack, Chad’s foreign minister warned France and African allies against hastily withdrawing troops from Mali even though much of the country had been cleared of rebels.
Chadian and French forces have spent weeks scouring valleys in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, once seen as impenetrable bases for al Qaeda’s North African wing, which last year seized Mali’s north alongside other Islamists.
Chad has suffered the highest number of casualties in the fighting having lost about 30 soldiers.
Underscoring the nervousness of troops in liberated towns, residents and officials of Kidal said Chadian soldiers on Sunday fired shots into the air and at unidentified gunmen.
The Chadians appeared to be trying to secure parts of the town, which is still occupied by separatist Tuareg rebels who moved in when the Islamists fled the French advance.
France launched its offensive in Mali in January warning Islamists could use it as a launchpad for terrorist attacks .
Several high-level Islamist leaders have been killed during the operations but the troops have not yet found any of seven French hostages that were believed to be being held there.
Deby said he believed the hostages were still alive but he was not sure if they were still in northern Mali.
France has started withdrawing its force, currently around 4,000 men, and plans to have just 1,000 by the end of the year.
Diplomats say these troops might make up a rapid reaction force that will operate alongside U.N. peacekeepers and be tasked with tackling remaining pockets of extremists.
Mali is due elections in July but experts warn of problems from insecurity, hundreds of thousands of people still living in refugee camps and a stalled political process.
Additional reporting by Cheick Diouara in Gao; Editing by Jason Webb