France plans coalition meeting on Islamic State, says militants retreating

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (R) speaks with soldiers of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, during a visit to the military base of the Foreign Legion, in the United Arab Emirates, January 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kenzo Tribouillard (Reuters)

PARIS (Reuters) - Members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State will meet in Paris next week to reinforce efforts against the group, France's defense minister said on Thursday, adding that the militants were clearly retreating in Iraq. France was the first country to join U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq. Since the Paris attacks by Islamic State militants in November, President Francois Hollande has stepped up French aerial operations against Islamic State, including in Syria, contributing about 20 percent of coalition strikes. "We struck last night in Mosul on a Daesh telecommunications center, a propaganda center. What we can say today is that Daesh is retreating in Iraq," Jean-Yves Le Drian said on BFM TV, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State. The minister said he would host his U.S., British and German counterparts in Paris next week to refine strategy and discuss tactics. The meeting is scheduled for Jan. 20. "We'll see how we can intensify our efforts in Iraq and Syria," Le Drian said. Islamic State, which was ousted by government forces from the western Iraqi city of Ramadi last month and has been slowly pushed back in other areas, is now on the back foot and French jets had struck seven times since Monday, he said. Le Drian said that at some point the Iraqi army and regional Kurdish Peshmerga forces supported by the coalition would need to launch the battle for Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State in Iraq. "It's very complicated. We will have to ensure the Iraqi and Kurdish forces are sufficiently battle-hardened to lead this battle," Le Drian said. French officials have been critical this week of Russian strikes in Syria, with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius saying Moscow had to immediately stop bombing civilians, something that was hindering efforts to hold peace talks later this month. Russia intervened in September in the civil war on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "If the principal Russian objective is to fight Islamic State, then they must first hit Islamic State. At the moment that is not the case, and there is a very strong tendency for it to strike rebels, the moderate opposition fighting Bashar al-Assad," he said. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday the French accusations were "strange and flimsy". "Making these accusations ..., France's foreign ministry is not basing (them) on concrete facts but rather employs someone else's fiction and propaganda cliches," Zakharova told a weekly news briefing. (Reporting by John Irish, Andrew Callus and Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by James Regan and Mark Heinrich)