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PARIS (Reuters) - France will reduce its troop numbers in Mali to 2,000 by July and to 1,000 by the end of the year, down from 4,000 at present, President Francois Hollande said on Thursday.
After its intervention in January to halt an advance by northern al Qaeda-linked rebels towards the capital Bamako, France is keen to wind down its presence quickly and hand over to African and U.N. troops.
Hollande said France was determined that Mali should hold elections as scheduled in July but insisted that France did not have a preferred candidate.
"The days when France chose Africa's heads of state for it are over," he told French television in an interview of more than one hour to defend his 10-month-old government's record.
The West African former colony is to hold a presidential election on July 7 and legislative elections two weeks later - vital steps to stabilise the gold- and cotton-producer after a French intervention which has helped the Malian army claw back large parts of its vast, desert north from heavily armed rebels.
Hollande reiterated France's official policy of not giving in to ransom demands for kidnap victims and said intelligence suggested that Philippe Verdon, a French hostage snatched in Mali in 2011, could already be dead.
However he said he had "signs of life" of a group of seven French nationals, including four children, who were kidnapped in Cameroon last month by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram.
Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Pravin Char and Mark John