France said on Wednesday a French soldier and about 20 Islamist militants were killed during a fierce clash in northern Mali near the Algerian border earlier in the day.
Le Drian’s office said in a statement that French forces had battled a militant group of some 30 fighters in the Tigharghar valley, part of the mountainous Adrar des Ifoghas area.
“Particularly violent combat took place. Our soldier was mortally hurt and two of his comrades were wounded.”
The offices of President Francois Hollande and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian both confirmed the death on Wednesday of Thomas Dupuy, a sergeant from a commando parachutist unit in the air force.
His death raised to 10 the number of French soldiers killed since France intervened militarily in Mali in January 2013 to help drive out Islamist insurgents who had seized control of the former French colony’s north.
About 20 “heavily armed” militants were killed in the operation that included combat helicopters, a statement from the army chief of staff said, adding that operations were ongoing.
A defence ministry source said French forces had launched an operation at the weekend against dozens of militants who had returned to the region after being driven out last year.
Addressing a parliamentary hearing earlier in the day, Le Drian said the militants might be linked to al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM, which has thrived in a largely lawless and sparsely populated desert region.
France’s intervention in Mali was designed to retake control of northern towns that had been overrun by separatists and rebels linked to al Qaeda in 2012 after a coup in the capital Bamako. It has since evolved into a 3,000-strong counter-terrorism mission stretching from Mauritania to southern Libya.
Le Drian on Monday criticised the slow deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in Mali’s volatile northern region and said he would send more troops to the area while the United Nations builds up its presence there.