A third French soldier has died in the campaign to recapture Mali's north that began in January. On Saturday, Chad had announced that its troops had killed former regional al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The parachutist, Corporal Cedric Charenton, was killed on Saturday night in an assault in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where the jihadists have taken refuge since French troops swept through northern Mali. The 26-year-old had also served in Afghanistan, Gabon and New Caledonia.
In a statement, President Francois Hollande expressed his "profound respect for the sacrifice of this young soldier" and hailed the "courage and ardor" of French forces fighting in Mali.
Though France had initially planned for the intervention to end quickly, officials now say that troops will stay in Mali until at least July. A total of 4,000 French soldiers have been deployed in Mali.
Together with Malian soldiers and units from other African countries, French forces had routed the al Qaeda-linked Islamists from their main strongholds in northern Mali almost without resistance at the end of January. However, France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that Saturday's fighting was some of the most violent since the campaign began on Jan. 11.
‘Several dead terrorists'
On Saturday, Chad's military announced that troops in Mali had killed the al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Islamist leader who masterminded the deadly mass hostage-taking at Algeria's Amenas gas plant in January.
"On Saturday, March 2, at noon, Chadian armed forces operating in northern Mali completely destroyed a terrorist base ..." Chadian armed forces spokesman General Zacharia Gobongue said in a statement read on national television. "The toll included several dead terrorists, including their leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar."
The Algerian national had broken away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb weeks ago to form Signatories in Blood. The group claimed responsibility for the assault on the southern Algerian gas plant in January during which 60 hostages, including 37 foreign workers, were killed.
mkg/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)