02/19/2013 19:51 GMT
by Cecile Feuillatre
PARIS, Feb 19, 2013 (AFP) - Mali said Tuesday that major military operations against Islamist rebels were winding down, despite the killing of a French Legionnaire in the country's mountainous north.
"The situation is much better than a few weeks ago. Large-scale military operations are coming to an end. What remains is to secure the liberated areas," Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko said after meeting in Paris with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Fabius said "difficult operations" remained in the country, where the French military launched an intervention last month that ousted the rebels from cities they had seized last year in Mali's vast desert north.
"We must ensure the integrity of the reconquest of Mali. As cities are reclaimed, Malian and African troops must ensure they are secured," Fabius said.
Underscoring the dangers, France announced only its second military death since the start of the operation on January 11 -- the killing of Staff Sergeant Harold Vormezeele, an NCO and commando with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, an elite unit of the French Foreign Legion.
The defence ministry said he was killed during an operation launched on Monday that had seen more than 20 rebels killed during clashes in the mountainous Ifoghas region.
It said 150 French and Malian soldiers were taking part in the operation, aimed at rooting rebels out of their sanctuaries.
Vormezeele was killed around 11:00 am (1000 GMT) on Tuesday.
"French forces consisting of a unit of paratroopers, backed by forward air control and an armoured patrol, were attacked by a group of terrorists while on a reconnaissance mission in the Adrar massif about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Tessalit," the ministry said.
It said two Mirage fighter jets were called in and destroyed two heavy machinegun nests from where the attacks were carried out.
President Francois Hollande offered condolences to the soldier's family, saying in a statement that he "salutes the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers involved in the fight against terrorist movements alongside Mali's armed forces and African troops."
Cissoko meanwhile addressed concerns over allegations of widespread rights abuses by Malian government forces during operations in the north, vowing that those responsible would be held to account.
"Regarding the abuses that would have been carried out by certain elements of the Malian army, these abuses, once they are proven, must be punished. Soldiers should behave in an exemplary manner," he said.
Fabius also said the abuses were "unacceptable".
"If they have taken place they must be punished," he said.
Cissoko reiterated that elections will take place by July 31 and promised political talks that would include all the country's diverse groups.
"We have the will, the determination" to push ahead with political reforms, he said.
"In the meantime, productive talks will take place between all of Mali's communities. The communities of the north as well as of the south. No community will be excluded," he said.
Ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali, who have long sought greater autonomy, initially backed the rebellion but later fell out with the Islamists.
Cissoko said a dialogue and reconciliation commission would be put in place before the end of February.