GAO (AFP) - Mali’s prime minister on Thursday urged France to maintain a military presence in its former colony, as troops began an early withdrawal three months after ousting armed rebels from the country’s north.

Diango Cissoko made the plea on a tour of Gao, the first visit to the battle-scarred northern city by a head of government since it was overrun by Al Qaeda-linked militants more than a year ago. The premier, who was welcomed by locals and military personnel, paid tribute to the French troops who intervened to liberate northern Mali from the armed militias in January.

“The Malian nation will be eternally grateful,” he said. But he urged the French army to “continue on this path” and stay in Mali, despite Paris pulling out 100 soldiers ahead of schedule this week as part of a phased withdrawal of the majority of its 4,000 troops.

France has said it will leave 2,000 soldiers on the ground throughout the summer, reducing its presence by the end of the year to a “support force” of 1,000 fighting alongside a UN-mandated army of some 11,000 troops. The cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal fell in March last year to Tuareg rebels who declared independence of the entire desert north before losing control to armed rebels.

French warplanes bombed parts of Gao in January to drive out fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and the city was recaptured for the Bamako government by French and Malian forces on January 26.

Just days later, fighters managed to infiltrate the city, where they staged the first suicide bombing in Mali’s history.

France honoured its African partners, deemed incapable by US critics of containing the insurgency in Mali, in a statement from the foreign ministry stressing that they “took an active part in operations against terrorist groups in northern Mali”.

French troops fighting alongside the Malian army and other African soldiers have largely succeeded in driving insurgents from the north but pockets of resistance remain, particularly in the Gao region.

One thousand French soldiers have been conducting an operation to destroy MUJAO’s logistics infrastructure in a valley north of Gao since Sunday. Parallel to the ongoing military operations, the international community is pushing for a formal process of reconciliation between the deeply divided nation’s diverse ethnic communities ahead of presidential elections scheduled for July.

Late on Wednesday interim President Dioncounda Traore designated 30 members of a Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission, including eight representatives of the Tuareg and Arab communities, which have complained about rights abuses by Malian security forces who often equate them with rebels.