Mali crisis: French soldier killed fighting Islamists

French soldiers and an armoured car in Mali, 2 March 2013 France says the soldier died in its heaviest fighting so far in Mali

A French soldier has been killed fighting Islamist militants in northern Mali, the French government says.

He is the third French serviceman to die since the start of military intervention in January.

The paratrooper was killed on Saturday "assaulting an enemy position" in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

It is the same region where the Chadian army - fighting alongside French forces - says it killed two top Islamist leaders in recent days.

The French defence ministry named the dead soldier as Cpl Cedric Charenton, 26.

He was killed in some of the heaviest fighting that France has carried out in Mali, defence minister Jean-Yves le Drian said.

'Fanatical'

At least 15 militants were killed in fighting to clear out caves where they had taken refuge, the French army said.

"We are facing a very fanatical adversary," army spokesman Col Thierry Burkhard said.

"They are fighting without giving ground."

Islamist rebels withdrew to the remote mountain range near the border with Algeria after French troops backed by helicopters and jets advanced to capture the main towns in northern Mali.

On Saturday the Chadian army said its troops in the same region had killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar - the veteran Islamist leader who was behind the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in January in which at least 37 hostages were killed.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar in a screen capture from an undated video distributed by the Belmokhtar Brigade (16 January 2013) The death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar in the same region has not been confirmed

A day earlier Chad also said it had killed another militant leader linked to Al Qaeda - Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.

The deaths of the two men - among the most feared Islamist militants in North Africa - have not been confirmed by France or other sources.

Islamist rebels took control of northern Mali a year ago after a military coup in the capital Bamako, in the south.

France intervened militarily in January amid fears they were preparing to advance on Bamako.

Mali's army and troops from several African countries, including 2,000 from Chad, have also been involved in the fighting.

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