French troops will stay in the West African country of Mali at least until July as Islamic extremists there have put up a tougher fight than expected, officials said, despite the government's promises to begin a quick pull-out within weeks.
The French government has painted the intervention against al Qaida-backed radicals in Mali as a quick and limited one, and said that France could start withdrawing its 4,000 troops in Mali in March and hand over security duties to an African force.
But the combat in rugged Sahara Desert mountains is growing harder, and there is a rising threat that the militants will turn to suicide bombings, hostage-taking and other guerrilla tactics.
One French diplomat acknowledged this week that a French military presence is expected to remain for at least six months. Two other French officials said that the French will remain at least until July, when France is hoping Mali can hold elections.
Any French pullout in March is likely to be small and symbolic, leaving behind a robust force to try to keep the peace in a poor, weak and troubled country, the officials say.
Mali was largely peaceful until a coup last year led to a political vacuum that allowed militants inspired by an extreme form of Islam to grab control of the country's north.
France, which is winding down its 11-year presence in Afghanistan, has now spent more than 100 million euro on fighting in Mali over the past six weeks, and is facing the prospect of another protracted and costly intervention against far-away jihadists.
France's defence minister this week seems to be seeking wiggle room on the timetable for a pullout.
And one French diplomat acknowledged: "Nobody believes the French presence will be over in six months." Some analysts say even that's optimistic.
Military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said that about 1,200 French, 800 Chadian and an unspecified number of Malian troops are closing in on an unspecified number of extremist fighters in a roughly 15-mile zone in the Adrar des Ifoghas range near the Algerian border in north eastern Mali.