France's top military chief says troops have begun withdrawing from part of the airport in the northern Malian city of Gao to make room for a United Nations peacekeeping force expected to deploy July 1.

Admiral Edouard Guillaud said during a visit to Gao that African and French troops already deployed in the city would ensure a smooth transition to the peacekeeping force, whose July 1 deployment was approved by the Security Council Tuesday.

Gao was among the cities overtaken by Islamic radicals following a coup in Mali last year. The extremists were driven out when France intervened in January.

The transition to a U.N. force was the top agenda item for a meeting of defense chiefs from the West African regional body ECOWAS that began Wednesday in Accra, Ghana.