PARIS - France's defence minister said Friday troops would start gradually withdrawing from the Central African Republic as the United Nations ramps up the number of peacekeepers in the conflict-wracked nation. "We are currently 2,000, we will be 1,500 in the spring," Jean-Yves Le Drian told the BFMTV television network. "We will reduce (troop numbers) as MINUSCA ramps up," he added, referring to the UN mission that is part of international efforts to restore peace and help transitional authorities after a 2013 coup led to civil war. The UN peacekeeping mission currently counts 8,600 people on the ground, and plans to increase this number to 12,000.

Le Drian insisted that Paris would maintain a presence "capable of being a rapid reaction force if there were risks".

France launched a military operation in the Central African Republic in December last year to try and stop a spiral of sectarian violence after the coup. The violence has seen thousands die and has triggered an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the country.