Fifth French soldier killed since Jan 11 military intervention in Mali

PARIS (AFP) - A French corporal was killed tracking down jihadist fighters in their northern Mali mountain bastions, bringing to five the number of French deaths since the Jan 11 military intervention, officials said on Sunday.

France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the 24-year-old soldier was killed and three of his comrades wounded when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb blast in the Ifoghas mountains.

Corporal Alexandre Van Dooren was "taking part in a search and destroy mission targeting terrorist weapons caches south of Tessalit" near the Algerian border, Mr Le Drian said in a statement. According to army sources, two of the wounded were in serious condition.

With its special forces and aerial firepower, the French military took only days to reconquer the main cities in northern Mali, which Al-Qaeda's North African franchise and its allies had controlled for nine months. But the bulk of jihadist fighters moved north to fight from their remote mountain strongholds, and France has admitted that flushing them out was the most perilous phase of its involvement.

President Francois Hollande's office paid tribute to the French forces involved in "the final and most difficult phase of their mission" in Mali.

Mr Hollande has already said he planned to scale back French military presence in the former colony as early as next month and start handing over responsibility to Malian troops and an African stabilisation force.

The Afisma force set up by regional bloc Ecowas has been slow to deploy however. It needs funding and training.

Residents of Gao, Timbuktu and other cities recaptured by French troops in January have voiced fears that Islamist fighters would resurface and sow terror in the region as soon as Paris withdraws its 4,000 soldiers.