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Armed Conflict

French pilot killed in Mali fighting

A helicopter pilot has become the first pronounced French military casualty of the country's day-old operation in Mali. France has launched air strikes and deployed hundreds of troops in the West African country.

Fighters of the Islamic group of Ansar Dine stand in Kidal as Burkina Faso's foreign Minister Djibrille Bassole meets with the Islamic group leader on August 7, 2012. An Islamist leader who wants to see Mali adopt sharia law vowed on August 7 to support regional mediation efforts to resolve the political crisis in the ruptured west African nation. AFP PHOTO / ROMARIC OLLO HIEN (Photo credit should read ROMARIC OLLO HIEN/AFP/GettyImages)

Ansar Dine Kämpfer in Mali

A French helicopter pilot died during fighting against Islamist rebels in Mali, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Saturday.

Le Drian confirmed that the pilot had died on Friday, but he did not comment on whether rebels had shot down the helicopter.

The defense minister also said that the French military had continued airstrikes in the West African country on Saturday morning, and that it had deployed “several hundred” French troops for the operation. French airstrikes, which began on Friday, have helped Mali's government forces to push back Islamist rebels from the central town of Konna.

“The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now," Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone told the Reuters news agency.

European alarm, French action

The capture of Konna by rebel groups on Thursday prompted alarm from Western governments.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Friday for "accelerated international engagement" and said the bloc would fast-track plans to send 200 troops to train forces in Mali.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had previously made ​​it clear that, for now, Germany would not send troops to Mali. The Foreign Ministry has called on all Germans to leave the West African country.

Although other foreign powers have not joined France in its mission in Mali, French President Francois Hollande has said that United Nations Security Council resolutions provide for the intervention in the former French colony. Earlier Friday, he said that France would stop any further southward drive by Islamist rebels.

"French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements," Hollande told reporters. "This operation will last as long as is necessary."

ECOWAS to help

ECOWAS, West Africa’s regional bloc is also to deploy soldiers to Mali by Monday, in order to help push rebel fighters northwards.

In a statement released on Saturday, the commission president of the bloc, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, said the decision had been taken "in light of the urgency of the situation."

sej/msh (dpa, Reuters, AFP)