The withdrawal will enable African forces to take over the operation.
France will, by March, begin a drawdown of its troops leading a military campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali, President Francois Hollande was quoted as saying.
“The President confirmed this morning that if everything goes as planned, beginning in March, the troops deployed in Mali are expected to decrease,’’ the government spokesperson, Najat Belkacem Vallaud, said in Paris, the French capital.
French forces would progressively hand over to African and Malian forces but would “continue to act in the north, where there are still terrorist centres,’’ French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said.
France began airstrikes against rebel positions in Northern Mali in January, after they began advancing South toward the capital, Bamako, from their Northern strongholds.
French and Malian forces have driven the rebels out of the main urban areas they had controlled for nine months, but the insurgents remain active in the desert hinterland.
Insurgents on Tuesday fired rockets on Gao’s outskirts, one of three key northern Malian cities where militants were driven out by French and Malian forces in the last two weeks, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday.
The clashes were not the first in areas where government control had been restored, he said.
“From the moment our forces, backed by Malian forces, started conducting missions and patrols around the towns we took, we’ve met residual jihadist groups who fight,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, some 1,800 Chadian troops, helped by French forces, were guarding positions in Kidal, about 350 Km north of Gao.
Kidal is currently under the control of the Tuareg separatist Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular group which has welcomed French intervention.
According to Malian military sources, the MNLA had started negotiations with the al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents to free the seven French hostages they were suspected to be holding.
“I believe that France wants to use (contacts with the MNLA) to locate its nationals taken hostage by armed groups,’’ said a Malian Army officer speaking on condition of anonymity.
The French hostages are believed to be held by Islamists in the mountainous area around Kidal.
Kidal had been under the control of the homegrown insurgent group Ansar Dine – allied with the jihadist Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) – since June 2012.
The MNLA retook the city last week as France launched airstrikes on Islamist positions.
Mr. Le Drian claimed on Tuesday that “several hundred’’ militants had been killed since the offensive began on January 11, mostly in airstrikes.
France lost one helicopter pilot on the first day of fighting and has also recorded “two or three’’ minor injuries, he said.