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Mali: French defense minister says troop pullout to start within weeks despite new challenges

Malian teenagers watch a convoy of French military vehicles pass through Gao, northern Mali, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013. A French soldier has been confirmed dead during a military operation in northern Mali, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)The Associated Press

France's defense minister says French troop units will start pulling out of Mali within weeks, despite new clashes and challenges in rooting out armed extremists in the West African country.

Extremists linked to al-Qaida seized control of northern Mali last year. France fears the region could become a terrorist haven, and France sent troops Jan. 11 to help Malian forces retake the north.

Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged Wednesday that the African military force meant to take over from the French is not ready yet. But he said on France 2 television that "we have no reason to stay ... it's a matter of weeks."

Le Drian said an operation in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains that killed a French soldier and some 20 militants Tuesday will continue "for a while."