French fight insurgents in Mali

Paris - France's defence minister says a violent clash broke out in northern Mali between French forces and militants linked to al-Qaeda's North Africa branch.

Speaking at the National Assembly, Jean-Yves Le Drian said the fighting involved French forces leading a counter-terrorism sweep and a sizeable armed group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He said the fighting that began overnight in Mali's Ifoghas mountains had ended late on Wednesday afternoon. He didn't immediately specify any casualties or provide further details.

In a vast counter-terrorism operation last year, French forces honouring a request from Mali's weakened government fought and largely expelled insurgents from northern Mali - then controlled by the al-Qaeda linked militants. But a recent resurgence of attacks that have killed 21 UN peacekeepers since early September led France to intensify military operations in the region.

In coordination with the peacekeepers, French troops including special forces launched operations focusing on the Ifoghas. A top French defence official estimated that as many as 200 insurgents remain active in northern Mali. He spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

France also recently intensified military operations in neighbouring Niger, aiming at stopping al-Qaeda arms shipments from Libya to Africa's Sahel region, an arid belt that stretches through several countries on the Sahara's southern rim. French defence officials say many of the fighters who were expelled from Mali have since gone to Libya.

Since the French military sweep last year sent many insurgents scurrying abroad, France has this year taken a regional approach against Islamist groups in Sahel. It has deployed some 3 000 troops, 200 armoured vehicles and six fighter jets in the former French colonies of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mali.

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