Paris, 1 Rabiul Akhir 1434/ 11 February 2013 (MINA) – A month after mounting a military operation to help Mali crush militants, France says it will shortly begin a drawdown of its forces in March — and is pushing for an international peacekeeping force in Mali as early as April. 
       Some observers say the Mali intervention symbolizes a changed French relationship with Africa — and the presidency of French leader Francois Hollande.
       After struggling with sinking polls at home, French President Francois Hollande got a boost overseas last week, during a triumphant visit to Mali, according to VOA reports monitored by Mi’raj News Agency (MINA), Monday.
       For the Mali operation, France has pushed for a multilateral face that includes soliciting support from Europe and the U.S.  While President Hollande says French troops will stay as long as necessary, Paris is pushing for a West African intervention force to take over as soon as possible.  Now, officials are outlining a new phase.
        Speaking to reporters in Paris on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France may begin drawing down its estimated 4,000 French troops in Mali starting next month.
       And Fabius suggested that the West African force could turn into an international peacekeeping one under the U.N. umbrella as early as April.
        For now, President Hollande is not only drawing cheers in Mali but also at home. Polls show the majority of French support the Mali operation.
        That includes retiree Yves Naviere who lives in the Brittany village of Ereac.  France knows Africa better than other countries, he says, so it makes sense it should send forces to Mali.
         But experts caution these sentiments may change swiftly if French troops stay too long and body bags start coming home.
         Frederic Lejeal says that’s one reason why Hollande is pushing for an African face to the operation.  And, he says, the French president believes Africa should manage its own problems.
         The government estimates the price tag so far for its Mali intervention at more than $90 million — but there may be other costs.  France has notched up its security at home, for fear of retribution.
          Earlier this week, police arrested four people outside Paris suspected of having links with extremists in the Sahel area of west and central Africa.  More than half-dozen French hostages are also being held in the Sahel — and their fate may hinge on France’s next moves in the region. (T/P07/E1)

Mi’raj News Agency (MINA)

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