PARIS (AP) — French and Malian forces moving into far eastern Mali clashed with jihadist fighters in a spontaneous gunbattle on Wednesday, leaving a French soldier and about 10 insurgents dead, a French military spokesman said.
The skirmish about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Gao, northeast Mali's largest town, marked the latest bloodshed since French forces swooped into the West African nation in January to help its embattled government root out extremist fighters. Mali's regional allies have since contributed hundreds of troops in a support role.
Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said the battle came as a military patrol involving troops from France, Mali, and Niger was extending into a previously uncontrolled territory. Four Malian soldiers were also injured.
"Around Gao, we are on a mission to secure the area," Burkhard said at a news conference to detail the incident, which was first announced by French President Francois Hollande's office. The insurgents were "rather mobile terrorist groups who were looking more to harass our actions than to hold a firm position."
About 20 French troops were in the patrol led by about 200 Malian soldiers, who drew support from a patrol of Mirage fighter jets and French helicopter gunships, Burkhard said. Sporadic clashes have been common in the area in recent days, he added.
With Wednesday's death of the soldier from an artillery regiment, France has now lost four soldiers since its military operation began Jan. 11. The goal of the intervention has been to help Mali's weak government take back the country's vast north from al-Qaida-backed fighters who had seized power and imposed harsh Islamic rule for 10 months.
"These sacrifices that are painful for the families, and are tough for the French people to live through, nonetheless serve a cause that is the fight against terrorism, for human dignity and the right of a country — Mali — to live in peace on its sovereign territory," Hollande told reporters in Warsaw, Poland, where he was meeting with other European leaders.
French officials say their blistering air and ground campaign involving Rafale and Mirage fighter jets, helicopter gunships, armored vehicles and artillery pieces have killed hundreds of militants.
The most intense and almost daily fighting over the last two weeks has been to the north of Wednesday's firefight — in the rocky and sandy Adrar des Ifoghas range along the Algerian border. French officials say the area is a crucial base and operations center of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Hundreds of militants are said to be under pressure from a deployment of French and Chadian troops there.