PARIS — French forces have "neutralized" several al-Qaida members in Mali's troubled north, where the group claimed responsibility for the execution of two French journalists, the chief of defense staff in Paris said Thursday.
The special operation overnight in the desert also led to the seizure of weapons, Admiral Edouard Guillaud said on Europe 1 radio. He did not specify if the al-Qaida members had been killed or captured.
"We launched a special operation at 2:30 am against a pick-up truck about 200-250 kilometers to the west of Tessalit in the heart of the desert where we neutralized several al-Qaida members," he said.
The operations "are not yet over," he said. "They are continuing and we are recovering materiel which can provide leads."
Guillaud said the operation had not been planned in advance.
France sent troops to its former colony in January after months of crisis in which al-Qaida-linked groups seized control of Mali's vast arid north in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 coup.
Although they managed to stem an advance by Islamists and Tuareg rebels pushing down south, the unrest is not over and has witnessed a spurt recently. Two journalists from Radio France Internationale were kidnapped and then executed in northern Mali on November 2.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the murders, saying it was "the minimum debt" owed by the French people and President Francois Hollande "in return for their new crusade."
Guillaud also denied accusations by a Tuareg rebel chief Moussa Ag-Acharatouman that French forces were guilty of brutalities in the wake of the killing of Ghislaine Dupont, 57, and Claude Verlon, 55.
"That is not the way in which French forces have been operating for more than half a century now," he said.
"Any excesses will obviously be punished immediately," he said.
Guillaud said "the level of violence has significantly decreased" in Mali since the French intervention in January.
"In eight months we have made phenomenal progress," he said, adding that Paris was working with Mali's neighbors such as Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria to ensure "there is no sanctuary" for al-Qaida members.
France currently has around 3,000 troops in Mali but it aims to reduce the strength of the force to some 1,000 by the start of January 2014, Guillaud said.
© AFP 2014