France has begun withdrawing troops from Mali, the military said on Tuesday, confirming that a first group of around 100 soldiers had already left the country at the end of March.

“Around 100 troops were redeployed from Tessalit (in the northeast) to Abidjan (Ivory Coast) about a week ago,” military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told DPA.

The troops belong to parachute regiments that were pursuing Islamist rebels in their mountain strongholds near the border with Algeria.

From Ivory Coast they were brought to Cyprus to recuperate before being repatriated to France.

The start of the withdrawal, which had been announced for the end of April, comes three months after France launched a ground and air offensive to stop the Islamist rebels who seized northern Mali advancing on the capital Bamako.

Since then, Operation Serval has grown to include 4,000 troops, who are working with African forces to rout the al-Qaeda-affiliates from the entire country.

Within two weeks of the start of the intervention, French and Malian forces had recaptured most northern towns from the rebels. But the insurgents have continued to launch sporadic attacks from their bases in the hinterland.

On Sunday, the French Army launched a major offensive north of the town of Gao in pursuit of rebels who have repeatedly infiltrated that town in recent weeks.

“Security is being tightened around the town of Gao. French and Malian troops are patrolling up to 150 km from the town in search of munitions used by the armed groups,” Astor Bilal, an advisor to the mayor, told DPA.

The operation, which involves 1,000 troops backed by tanks, helicopters and drones, is expected to last several days.

The French forces aim to deal a knockout blow to the rebels before accelerating the pace of the withdrawal in the coming weeks.

French President Francois Hollande said last month he would reduce the troop level to 2,000 by July.

The announcement of a scaled-back French presence has sparked fears that the fundamentalist rebels, who implemented strict sharia (Islamic) law on the people of northern Mali, could return.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has assured that a “support force” of 1,000 troops will remain on to fight terrorism, after the start of a United Nations peacekeeping mission expected in the coming months.

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