France suffers fourth Mali death

Clashes between French troops and Islamist fighters near Gao in eastern Mali left one French soldier and around ten rebels dead, defence officials said on Wednesday.

Sergeant Wilfried Pingaud, 37, is the fourth French soldier to die in action since the intervention in Mali began nearly two months ago. He was a member of the 68th African Artillery Regiment based in Valbonne in the south of France.

Pingaud died in exchanges with a group of Islamist fighters that erupted as French and Malian troops carried out an operation to secure an area about 100 kilometres (65 miles) east of Gao. Four Malian soldiers were wounded in the clash.

President Francois Hollande paid homage to Pingaud's sacrifice, saying he "carried out his mission to free Mali of terrorist groups with courage and devotion."

France has suffered relatively few casualties during its operations in Mali, launched in mid-January to back up Malian forces against Islamist rebels who seized control of the country's vast desert north last year.

On Saturday a paratrooper was killed during an operation to flush out militants from the Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali.

A legionnaire with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment was killed amid heavy clashes on February 19 and a helicopter pilot died at the very start of the operation.

The French-led intervention quickly ousted the rebels from the north's main cities and fighting has intensified in recent days as efforts focus on hunting down the militants in mountainous areas.

Army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said "half a dozen" Islamists had surrendered to French forces following fighting near Tessalit on the northern edge of the Ifoghas mountains in the northeast of the country.

France said Tuesday that "dozens" of rebels had been killed in fighting in the Ifoghas over recent days. Chad has confirmed the death of 27 of its troops in the clashes.