Military intervention to recapture Mali's north from Al-Qaeda linked Islamists will be an uphill task requiring "toughened" soldiers, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Sunday.
The vast region fell under control of radical Islamist groups including the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the chaos that followed a March coup in a country that was once considered one of Africa's most stable democracies.
The United Nations and the European Union have agreed to provide training for Malian troops "which can start immediately," Fabius told French television.
"The Malian troops will be trained and they will try to retake the cities in the north like Timbuktu, Kidal etc.," he said, adding that this could start in weeks.
"After that there will be another operation which is more difficult that is to confront Al-Qaeda and its outlets. This requires hardened troops," he said.
Fabius told AFP that the recapture of the northern towns did not always mean a confrontation with the AQIM as as "they are not all held" by the group.
Islamists controlling the north have imposed their strict version of sharia law, arresting unveiled women, stoning to death unmarried couples and amputating the limbs of suspected thieves, according to residents and rights groups.
They have also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines that have been revered for centuries and are classed as World Heritage Sites, but which the radicals consider blasphemous.
France, Mali's erstwhile colonial ruler, has pledged logistical support to the military intervention but has said it will not put troops on the ground.