France action in Mali is real war, says Le Drian
French forces are embroiled in a "real war" with "terrorists" around the Malian town of Gao, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said.
Islamist militants were swept from Gao last month, but Mr Le Drian said clashes were continuing in the area.
French forces were deployed nearly a month ago to combat al-Qaeda-linked militants who had taken over Mali's desert northern regions.
Paris says it wants to begin pulling out its 4,000 troops in March.
"The president confirmed this morning that if everything goes to plan, the number of French troops in Mali will begin to fall from the month of March," a government spokeswoman said.
The Mali militants have been routed and cleared from most of the population centres.
Phase one of the French mission in Mali is over, and it has been a success. The main population centres have been secured and the Islamists put to flight. Local people, and African governments, are full of praise for what the French have done.
It is a moment of satisfaction, but the French would be well advised not to let it go to their heads. What follows may be more testing.
Already it is clear there is what the defence minister calls "residual" resistance around towns like Gao. Then there is the task of clearing out the inaccessible Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where the toughest of the Islamists have taken refuge, probably with French hostages. And beyond that questions are bound to be asked about the capacity of Malian and African troops to take over when the French leave.
The French want to start pulling out troops in March. But if the campaign morphs into a new kind of conflict, they may have to think again.
But clashes are continuing away from the towns.
"When you leave the centre of captured cities, you meet jihadis left behind," Mr Le Drian told France's Europe 1 Radio.
He said Islamist fighters had used rockets in battles with the French and Malian troops on Tuesday.
He had earlier said that hundreds of militants had been killed in the month-long operation.
When asked about the deaths, he replied: "This is a real war with significant losses but I'm not going to get into an accounting exercise."
One French servicemen has died since the conflict began in early January.
The BBC's Mamadou Moussa Ba in Gao says heavy bombardment could be heard in the centre of the city on Tuesday, with a French helicopter patrolling.
He says it seems the French intervened after militants tried to launch a rocket attack on a Malian military camp.
Eyewitnesses said French and African troops had left their military base in Gao on Wednesday morning and were heading towards the town of Ansongo, towards the border with Niger, our correspondent adds.Vast desert
Earlier this week, French forces accompanied by hundreds of troops from Chad cleared fighters from the last rebel stronghold, the town of Kidal.
Mr Le Drian also insisted that the 4,000 French troops currently deployed would be the maximum number in Mali.
- The government: President Dioncounda Traore installed after military coup in early 2012; he asked France for military help in January amid a rebel onslaught
- The Islamist militants: Swept through northern Mali in 2012 taking control of towns and cities and installing Sharia; since forced to flee by French forces
- The Tuareg rebels: Inflicted a series of defeats on government soldiers in early 2012; occasionally allied to Islamists, but support French intervention
Islamist rebels overran towns in Mali's north, and were threatening to overthrow the government in a rapid advance last year.
The crisis has since been complicated by splits in the main Islamist militant groups.
There is also an overlapping rebellion by Tuareg, who want either independence or autonomy.
The government is weak and unable to control the north, where tiny towns punctuate a vast desert.
Officials from the UN, EU, African Union, the World Bank and dozens of nations have met in Brussels to discuss Mali's future.
They are considering how elections can be held in July, as well as the financing of an international military force and humanitarian assistance.