, Paris November 5- France said Tuesday it would stick to plans to withdraw most of its troops from Mali, as the bodies of two French journalists killed in the country’s restive north arrived in Paris.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said 150 French soldiers had been sent to join 200 troops already in the flashpoint northeastern town of Kidal, where Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were killed on Saturday.
But he insisted France would pull two thirds of the soldiers it has in Mali out of the west African country by the end of January as planned.
Recent incidents “do not call into question the overall schedule to reduce the presence of French forces,” Fabius told RFI.
“We have about 3,000 men in place, it was intended they remain until the elections” for a new parliament on November 24, he said.
“Then we will reduce this number and normally there should be 1,000 soldiers (left in Mali),” he said.
France sent the troops to Mali early this year to drive out Islamists and Tuareg rebels who had seized the country’s vast north after a coup.
Paris has always said the mission would be reduced by two thirds by early next year as a 12,600 strong UN peacekeeping force takes over.
Some in Mali have voiced concern over the French drawdown amid an increase in violence, as the country’s continued instability was highlighted this week with the deaths of the RFI journalists.
Dupont, 57, and Verlon, 55, were kidnapped and shot dead by what French officials called “terrorist groups” after interviewing a spokesman for Tuareg separatist group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
A French military patrol found Dupont and Verlon’s bodies about 12 kilometres (seven miles) east of Kidal, just hours after they were snatched on Saturday, lying by a pick up truck in which they had been abducted.
The bodies were flown home early Tuesday from Bamako to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where their coffins, draped in blue cloth, were presented to some 20 relatives and RFI employees during a private ceremony also attended by President Francois Hollande.
Journalists from RFI, a publicly funded radio station with a long history of covering Africa and similar to Britain’s BBC World Service, were to gather at the station’s headquarters outside Paris later Tuesday for a public memorial service.
The killings have shaken France, which just days ago was celebrating the return of four hostages who had been held for three years after being abducted in Mali’s neighbour Niger.
A Malian police source said “a dozen suspects” were detained in connection with the journalists’ killings, but French sources denied there had been any arrests.
After meeting with RFI management on Monday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita vowed the country would “do everything to find the culprits”.
A French source said seven investigators, including intelligence and police officials, were sent to Mali to assist in the investigation.
The United States on Monday condemned acts of violence against journalists and expressed concern over the security situation in Mali.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon also arrived in Bamako late Monday for an anti poverty mission in the region that was overshadowed by the journalists’ killings.
“This drama reminds us that we must work closely to face up to terrorism and these attacks against journalists,” Ban said, adding that his mission was to work with leaders of the Sahel countries “to ensure stability and prosperity” in the region.