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France won't delay Mali troop reductions despite killings

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius speaks to journalists following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris November 3, 2013. REU
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius speaks to journalists following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris November 3, 2013. REU

PARIS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - France will stick to the timetable for its troop withdrawal from Mali despite a resurgence in violence and the killing of two French journalists at the weekend, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday.

France, which sent soldiers to its former colony in January to combat militants who had taken over large swathes of the country, has already delayed by two months plans to reduce troop numbers to 1,000, from 3,200, which was originally scheduled for the end of the year.

Fabius, speaking on RFI radio, confirmed the French army had redeployed 150 soldiers from the south to Kidal, the Tuareg rebel stronghold in the north, where instability has grown in recent months and where the journalists were abducted.

"President (Hollande) immediately decided to strengthen our presence in Kidal, but that does not put into question the calendar and the reduction of French forces," Fabius said.

The strength of Malian forces and U.N. peacekeeping troops would also be increased, he said.

France launched air strikes and sent thousands of soldiers into Mali in January to drive back al Qaeda-linked rebels it said could turn Mali into a base for militant attacks.

Islamists scattered during the French assault and a presidential election was held in August that brought Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to power.

Legislative elections are due on November 24, but the journalists' deaths follow a string of attacks in the desert zone of northern Mali.

Last month Malian and international forces launched a big operation to keep pressure on Islamist groups.

Although Malian, U.N. and French troops are stationed in Kidal, none are heavily deployed. The Malian army's contingent is generally symbolic and soldiers are confined to their base.

About 200 U.N. peacekeepers (MINUSMA) are officially in control of security and France also has about 200 troops, though their operations in the region have focused on the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains to the north, which served for years as a hide-out for militants.

French and Malian forces are hunting the killers of the journalists and questioning suspects. Fabius suggested Paris believed Islamist militants were behind the attack.

"We are following all leads," Fabius told parliament Tuesday. "What the government wants is that those who committed this crime are tracked down, caught and punished."

A team of seven French investigators arrived in Mali on Tuesday and had started taking fingerprints from the car left abandoned where the journalists were killed, a French police source said.

"What I can tell you is that the investigation is moving forward, but I can't tell you who has been arrested or how many people," Kidal governor Adama Kamissoko told Reuters.

(Reporting by John Irish and Gerard Bon in Paris and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako Editing by Angus MacSwan and Barry Moody)

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