France wants to cut its forces in Mali sharply by the year-end and is urging its ex-colony to hold elections in July, but an Islamist insurgency is threatening that timetable.

Many people in northern Mali who lived under the rebels’ brutal form of Islamic law last year are apprehensive about French plans to leave just 1,000 of the current 4,000 troops in the country by December, with U.N. peacekeepers filling the gap.

“The Islamists are waiting for the French to leave to open the gates to hell. Let’s hope the U.N. will take over quickly because the Malian army alone cannot face the terrorism threat,” said Alhassane Maîga, a teacher in the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.

Last weekend Islamist militants launched their second attack on Timbuktu in a fortnight, shortly after French President Francois Hollande insisted the elections must take place as scheduled and unveiled the plan to slash troop numbers.