France's defence minister has backtracked from a suggestion that military intervention in Mali is imminent, cautioning that preparations to deploy 3,000 African troops remain at an early stage.
Jean-Yves Le Drian last week said military action aimed at removing Islamist groups who have taken control of northern Mali would happen in "weeks not months."
But his tone was much more cautious Wednesday.
"It is not the time for intervention at the moment," Le Drian told Radio France International. "Right now it is about putting in place the preparations requested by the UN Security Council.
"African states are putting in place a plan of action that will be presented to the Security Council within a month and it is after that that the question of an intervention will be addressed."
France has led the push for military action in Mali, a former colony where six French hostages are currently being held by Islamist groups.
The obstacles to and potential risks in any operation were the subject of discreet talks between senior French and US officials in Paris this week.
The United States is understood to have promised support for any intervention having abandoned a previous requirement for it to be preceded by the election of a new government in Mali.
Le Drian reiterated that France would support the African force with training, logistics and the supply of equipment but would not be putting its own troops into Mali.
"The reality is that it is the Africans who have taken the initiative and have to lead the recapture of their own territory," he added.
France's association with the planned operation has increased fears for the safety of the hostages, but Le Drian said that could not act as a block on preparations.
"Everything is dangerous for our hostages," he said. "That is why we are very prudent in the language we use and the reason we have deployed enormous resources to try and establish where they are located and in envisaging how we can get them out."© ANP/AFP