By Tangi Salaün and John Irish
PARIS -French forces killed an al Qaeda leader during an operation in the Sahel region of Africa, France's armed forces minister said on Friday, vowing to keep a substantial military presence in the region a day after President Emmanuel Macron ordered a draw-down.
Speaking in an impromptu address, Florence Parly said that Baye ag Bakabo, who she said was responsible for the death of two French reporters in Mali in 2013, was killed on June 5. Three other militants were also killed.
"An operation was then launched against an armed terrorist group which was about to unleash mortar fire on a base held by a Chadian battalion of MINUSMA," Parly said, referring to the United Nations mission in Mali. "Four people were neutralised in the mission."
Radio journalists Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont were abducted and shot dead after interviewing a member of the MNLA Tuareg separatist group in northern Mali in November 2013, six month after French troops drove back al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized cities and towns in northern Mali.
Their families have sought numerous legal avenues to bring their killers to justice.
Paris prosecutors as early as 2013 had named Bakabo, a Touareg rebel and drug trafficker linked to al Qaeda’s north African wing, as the chief suspect after his pick-up truck was found abandoned in the desert near the bodies of the journalists.
25% to 50% PCT TROOP REDUCTION
Parly was speaking after Macron said his country's operation battling Islamist militants in Sahel would come to an end with troops now operating as part of broader international efforts in the region.
France, the former colonial power, has hailed some success against Sahel militants in recent months. However, the situation is extremely fragile and Paris has grown frustrated with no apparent end in sight to its operations, political turmoil, especially in Mali, and some regional governments directly negotiating with militants Paris has been fighting.
"We are not changing the objective, which is to continue the fight against terrorism. What changes is the approach," Parly told Franceinfo radio on Friday morning.
"France remains committed in the Sahel. France's military engagement will remain very significant," she said, declining to give details on the troop reductions.
Macron said on Thursday details would be finalised by the end of June after consultations with African and international partners, but that the focus would now be on special forces carrying out counter-terrorism operations.
Military and diplomatic sources have said France could cut its troop involvement by as much as half from the current 5,100 within two years.
"The numbers being touted are a reduction of between 25% and 50%. We'll probably be in-between," a military source told , speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The evolution won't happen from one day to the next. We're talking about years not weeks, but the idea is to begin this summer after consultation with our partners."
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet and Matthieu Protard; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Toby Chopra and Nick Macfie)