French soldier killed in Mali, 20 rebels dead

Tue Feb 19, 2013 2:46pm EST
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By Vicky Buffery and John Irish

PARIS/DAKAR (Reuters) - A French soldier and more than 20 Islamist rebels were killed during what appeared to be the first clashes in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range where militants have taken refuge in northern Mali, French officials said on Tuesday.

Speaking on a visit to Athens, French President Francois Hollande said serious fighting had broken out and was continuing in the remote area that straddles the Mali-Algeria border, resulting in several casualties among the rebels and one French legionnaire.

"At this moment we have special forces that are in an extremely precarious zone of the Ifoghas," Hollande said. "It's where the terrorist groups that we stopped before have pulled back to."

The soldier is the second French casualty since Paris intervened in Mali last month when Islamist rebels, after hijacking a rebellion by ethnic Tuareg MNLA separatists to seize control of the north in the confusion following a military coup, pushed south towards the capital Bamako.

Highlighting the risk of attacks on French nationals and interests in Africa since the intervention in its former colony, a French family of seven was kidnapped in northern Cameroon on Tuesday by suspected Nigerian militants.

After driving the bulk of the insurgents from northern towns such as Timbuktu and Gao, France has been focusing its operations on Mali's remote northeast mountains, where French special forces and Chadian troops are hunting rebel bases.

They believe the rebels are holding some of the eight French hostages, previously seized in region, in hideouts in the Adrar des Ifoghas range.

"We are now in the last phase of the operation," Hollande said. "That means arresting the last leaders of these groups that are in the extreme north of Mali."   Continued...

French soldiers drive an armoured vehicle outside Hombori February 18, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney