French soldier dies in Mali as Paris prepares counter-insurgency plan

Soldier is the eighth to die in country since France intervened in January 2013 to oust al-Qaeda-linked militants controlling north of the country

A French soldier has been killed in northern Mali as France prepares to deploy thousands of its troops across the region to better fight Islamist militancy, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday.

The soldier, the eighth to die in Mali since France intervened in its former colony in January 2013 to oust al-Qaeda-linked militants controlling the north of the country, was killed after an explosive device went off under his vehicle, Mr Le Drian told RMC radio.

Pockets of al Qaeda-linked fighters are still holding out across the north, more than a year after the French offensive aimed at driving them from the desert region they occupied for most of 2012 after hijacking a rebellion by Tuareg separatists.

But after being scattered across Mali and into neighbouring countries, they have regrouped and stepped up operations in recent months, Mr Le Drian said after announcing the death.

“A certain stability was achieved across the south [of Mali], but in the north a certain number of jihadists have wanted to regroup,” he said. “They have nothing to lose. They will give up their life [for the cause].”

Mr Le Drian said France was restructuring its forces across West Africa for more counterterrorism activities to target Islamist groups taking advantage of porous borders between southern Libya, northern Chad and northern Niger. "There will be 1,000 soldiers that remain in Mali, and 3,000 in the Sahel-Sahara zone, the danger zone, the zone of all types of smuggling," he said. "We will stay as long as necessary. There is no fixed date."

France is particularly worried by the situation in Libya where more than 2½ years after the fall of former leader Muammar Gadafy, the oil-rich North African state is struggling to contain violence between rival forces and Islamist militants are gaining ground in the south.

French defence officials say the new phase in operations will allow their forces to operate freely across borders to strike militants. It was recently approved by the main countries concerned – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. – (Reuters)