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France ready to start Mali withdrawal despite attack: army chief

French soldiers take up positions near Independence Plaza, formerly Sharia Square, during fighting with Islamists in Gao, February 21, 2013.
French soldiers take up positions near Independence Plaza, formerly Sharia Square, during fighting with Islamists in Gao, February 21, 2013.

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - France is still ready to start pulling its forces out of Mali next month despite a rebel attack on the key northern town of Gao, the French head of the armed force said on Friday.

Admiral Edouard Guillaud, chief of the defense staff, told reporters after a speech in Ottawa that he was not surprised by Thursday's attack in Gao, when 15 Islamists were killed by French and Malian troops.

France's defense minister had earlier said Paris could start pulling out troops in early March.

Asked whether this was still the plan, Guillaud replied: "This is obviously conditions-based, that's obvious. But yet, I don't see any reason not to begin some drawdown."

France sent troops last month to fight Islamist rebels who had captured the northern half of Mali. There are now around 4,500 French soldiers stationed in the country.

Guillaud, in initial comments to Reuters, blamed Thursday's attack on the MUJWA group that had held Gao until French forces liberated it late last month. MUJWA is a splinter faction of al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM.

"It's simply the continuation of attacks by MUJWA which will probably want to try more attacks in the coming days. It was sadly predictable and the next attacks will fail just like they did yesterday," he said.

Separately on Friday, five people were killed in two car bomb attacks by Islamists on pro-autonomy MNLA Tuareg rebels in a remote Malian town bordering Algeria, an MNLA spokesman said.

Violence in the north reinforces the risk of French and African forces becoming entangled in a guerrilla war as they try to help Mali's weak army counter al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Pressed on whether he was worried the attacks meant France would be staying in Mali longer than anticipated, Guillaud replied "No."

Canada has provided a transport plane to help the mission but says it will not send troops, citing the risk of Mali turning into a prolonged counterinsurgency like the ones seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Guillaud said the French operation was going as planned.

"The first phase is nearly finished and that was reconquering Mali on behalf of the Malian government and the international community. The second phase is handing over to the African forces and this is being done," he said.

The U.N.-backed African military force (AFISMA) has about 3,800 troops on the ground in Mali.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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