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French death toll in Mali rises to five

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French death toll in Mali rises to five
A file photo of French soldiers in Mali. Photo: AFP
06:46 CET+01:00
A French corporal was killed tracking down jihadist fighters in their northern Mali mountain bastions, bringing to five the number of French deaths since Paris launched a military offensive in the country two months ago.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Sunday the 24-year-old soldier was killed and three of his comrades were wounded when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb blast in the Ifoghas mountains, without saying when it happened.

Meanwhile, an international conference chaired by the African Union's Peace and Security Council in Nouakchott on the situation in northern Mali and the broader region where Al-Qaeda-linked groups have been prospering concluded that early efforts by the AFISMA regional force to stabilise the region must be consolidated.

With French special forces and aerial firepower, the French-led offensive took only days to reconquer the main cities in northern Mali, which Al-Qaeda's North African franchise and its allies had controlled since last spring.

But the bulk of Islamist fighters moved north to fight from their remote mountain strongholds and France has admitted that flushing them out was the most perilous phase of its involvement.

And in a sign the conflict is far from over, five missiles exploded a few kilometres outside the main northern city of Gao overnight, although there were no casualties.

The Islamists were driven from Gao on January 26th, but the city suffered a series of suicide attacks and other raids last month, which has led residents to fear for the worst when the French leave.

President Francois Hollande has already said he planned to scale back French military presence in the former colony as early as next month and start handing over responsibility to Malian troops and an African stabilization force.

The AFISMA force set up by regional west African bloc ECOWAS has been slow to deploy however and it needs funding and training.

Residents of Gao, Timbuktu and other cities recaptured by French-led troops in January have voiced fears that Islamist fighters would resurface and sow terror in the region as soon as Paris withdraws its 4,000 soldiers.

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