Mali: France Suffers First Loss in Mali Air Strikes

Photo: Edward Braly/USAF
Mali army training.

France has its first soldier in the offensive against Mali's Islamist rebels - a helicopter pilot was injured and later died as French military gave aerial support to the Malian army's attempts to fight off advancing insurgents near the town of Konna.

Lieutenant Damien Boiteux was wounded in an attack on an insurgent column on Friday afternoon and later died from his wounds, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced Saturday.

The attack stopped the advance of the column, which was heading south from the town of Konna, which the rebels seized on Thursday, towards two other towns, Mopte and Sévaré, Le Drian said.

The French military is reported to have been sending supplies and personnel to Sévaré this week.

French President François Hollande, who announced the country's intervention in Mali on Friday, sent Boiteux's family his "sincere condolences".

Hollande cancelled a visit to Marseille, which was opening its year as European Capital of Culture this weekend, to hold a special meeting of the country's defence council on Saturday afternoon.

The Mali operation has been codenamed "Serval", after a species of desert cat, Chief of Staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud announced Saturday.

A tactical command is based in Mali and a strategic one, involving the president and the defence ministry, in Paris, he said.

The Malian army claimed to be mopping up the last pockets of resistance in Konna on Saturday, although news wires cited residents as saying that the town had not been completely recaptured.

The French intervention is a reversal of the government 's previous commitment to limit its intervention to logistical support and training, apparently prompted by an unexpected Islamist drive south.

Nigeria on Saturday denied sending an combat troops to Mali but said that it has sent a technical team from its air force, while Senegal also denied reports that it had sent troops.

On Friday evening the Ecowas regional body officially endorsed the immediate dispatch of troops.

France has asked the UN Security Council to speed up plans for a west African force to intervene in the troubled country, roughly two-thirds of whose territory is now controlled by Islamist insurgents linked to Al Qaeda.

Le Drian and Guillaud denied that Saturday's botched attempt to free French secret service agent Denis Allex from Somalia's al Shebab was connected with the Mali offensive.

"Everything indicates" that Allex was killed by his captors, Le Drian said.

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