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France to return sovereignty to Mali in 'coming days'

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France to return sovereignty to Mali in 'coming days'
FIle photo: AFP
09:41 CET+01:00
Mali's sovereignty over almost all of its territory will be restored within "a few days", French President Francois Hollande promised as French troops prepare to pull out.

The announcement came as Paris scrambled on Wednesday to verify a claim by Al-Qaeda's north African branch that it had executed a French hostage in retaliation for France's military intervention in Mali.

"In the last phase where we are, almost the entire territory will return to Mali's sovereignty in a few days," Hollande said during a dinner with representatives of the Jewish community in France.

Hollande spoke shortly after his Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that French troops would begin pulling out of troubled Mali "from the end of April". 

Ayrault said a meeting next Monday between lawmakers in France's National Assembly and Senate would assess the involvement of French troops to help flush out Islamist rebels in the west African country "even if our troops will begin coming home from the end of April".

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hailed France's military intervention in Mali in a phone call with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, thanking Paris for its "active leadership", officials said.

France sent troops to Mali on January 11 to prevent Islamists in the north from pushing south to the capital Bamako. 

After initially hesitating, the United States has backed the French-led action with logistical support, sending transport planes, surveillance drones and refueling tankers to boost the campaign.

However France's actions have made its nationals targets for Islamist militants in the region. 

A man claiming to be a spokesman for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) told Mauritania's ANI news agency late Tuesday that "spy" Philippe Verdon had been executed in Mali on March 10 "in response to France's intervention in northern Mali".

"The French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages," the spokesman warned.

The French foreign ministry said it was trying to verify the report. "We can't say at the moment if it is credible," said a spokesman.

Verdon's father Jean-Pierre Verdon said he feared the worst. "I'm not under any illusion, but I will wait for confirmation," he told AFP.

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