Hundreds of Islamists killed in Mali fighting: France

Several hundred Islamists have been killed in airstrikes and direct combat in Mali since France launched an offensive to drive out the rebels from the north of the country, the French defence minister said Tuesday.

Giving its first official toll since the offensive began on January 11, the defence ministry told AFP "several hundred" Islamist had died "in (French) airstrikes" on vehicles transporting fighters and equipment, and in "direct combat in Konna and Gao", recaptured towns in the centre and north.

The ministry refused to give an exact toll however.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian meanwhile told French television BFMTV that France's troops had inflicted "great damage on the jihadist terrorist groups", saying "several hundred, a significant number" of Islamist fighters had been killed.

France's sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot who was killed at the very start of the military operation, he said, while "two or three" soldiers have suffered light injuries.

"The Malian army took some prisoners, not many, who will have to answer to Malian courts and to international justice," he said, adding that "some" of those detained were high-ranking militants.

At the weekend, the number-three leader of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), one of the main Islamist groups who occupied northern Mali for over 10 months, was arrested near the Algerian border.

The arrest has been claimed by a Tuareg group formerly allied with the Islamists, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), which on Tuesday said it was working with the French against "terrorists" in the region.