French defense minister says 500 French troops to leave Central African Republic by spring

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France's defense minister says 500 of the 2,000 French troops in Central African Republic will be withdrawn by spring now that security is returning and U.N. peacekeepers are in place.

Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday that security in the former French colony has progressively returned with schools reopened and some 8,000 peacekeepers fanning out.

He spoke a year after France began sending troops to stabilize the country after a Muslim rebel coalition overthrew the president and sectarian violence erupted. At least 5,000 people have died.

The minister said there would now be a gradual drawdown of French troops. He did not project when all the troops would be gone.

Three French soldiers have been killed over the past year.