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

France's defense minister says 500 of the 2,000 French troops in Central African Republic will be withdrawn by spring now that security is returning and U.N. peacekeepers are in place.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