By Marine Pennetier and Tiemoko Diallo
PARIS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - A French soldier was killed in the first suicide bombing targeting France's forces in northern Mali, where local and foreign troops are struggling to restore order after putting down an Islamist insurgency last year, officials said.
The attack came just days before French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to visit Mali and President Francois Hollande's visit to West Africa later this week.
Both had been expected to play up the improved security situation in Mali and tout the planned reorganization of France's 1,700 troops there into a regional counter-terrorism operation.
The Foreign Legion soldier died from wounds after coming under attack about 100 km (60 miles) north of the city of Gao on Monday, the defense ministry said.
He was part of a monitoring mission in the Al Moustarat region north of Gao, Colonel Gilles Jaron, an army spokesman, said.
"A speeding vehicle approached. We opened fire, stopping the vehicle 10 meters from where we were. But the terrorist activated his explosive charge," he said.
Seven French soldiers were wounded in the blast, threeseriously, Jaron said. The death was the ninth for France since it intervened in its former colony in January 2013. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
France's intervention in the West African nation halted the advance of al Qaeda-linked fighters, who had taken advantage of a Tuareg separatist uprising and subsequent military coup to seize control of the northern two-thirds of the country in 2012.
France and other Western powers feared the Islamists could further destabilize the region and use their stronghold in Malias a launch pad for attacks abroad. While the French-led military offensive scattered theIslamist fighters across the rugged desert north, they have continued to carry out sporadic attacks on Malian forces andUnited Nations peacekeepers now deployed to the country.
Peace talks between Mali government officials and Tuaregrebels, who are seeking greater autonomy for the north and were not targeted by the French intervention, are due to open inAlgeria on Wednesday. The talks will mark the first meeting since fighting in theTuareg stronghold town of Kidal killed around 50 Malian soldiers in May.
As a prelude to the Algiers peace talks, the government on Tuesday agreed to exchange 42 rebel prisoners it was holding in the capital for 45 Malian soldiers captured following Kidal fighting in a deal brokered by Algeria. More than 30 people were injured in clashes in the northover the weekend, underlining the continuing volatility in the region at a time when France is seeking to shift its role there.
Paris is in the process of reorganizing its deployment in the region, with its 1,700 soldiers in Mali being folded into a broader, Sahel-wide counterterrorism force.
This redeployment plan was delayed in May by heavy fighting between government and rebel forces in northern Mali. Under the new plan, some 3,000 French troops will operate out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad with the aim of stamping out an Islamist threat across the region.
The operation, dubbed Barkhane (the name of a croissant-shaped sand dune created by desert winds), will be based in Chad and receive logistical support from bases in Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gabon.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Natalie Huet and Joe Bavier; Editing by Bate Felix, Raissa Kasolowsky and Steve Orlofsky)