PARIS (AP) - A French soldier has died in some of the most intense fighting thus far in the seven-week-old military campaign to push back a jihadist advance in Mali, officials said Sunday.
Parachutist Corporal Cedric Charenton was killed Saturday night in an assault in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains along the Algerian border, where the jihadists have retrenched as French troops have swept through the country's north.
He is the third troop to die since France began its intervention to dislodge the al-Qaida-linked militants on Jan. 11. The 26-year-old had already served in Afghanistan, Gabon and New Caledonia.
Military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said about 15 jihadists were killed in the fighting in the Ametettai Valley. He added that French forces destroyed three pickup trucks and seized a significant cache of munitions and arms, including automatic rifles and mortars.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that the fighting was some of the most violent since the campaign began. Burkhard added that the fighters the French are currently facing are notable for their "fanaticism."
"Their goal is to inflict a maximum of losses on us and, in the positions that they hold, they fight without any intention of retreating, which inevitably means that they take very, very heavy losses," he said.
Burkhard said fighting was continuing Sunday in the area, which the jihadists were hoping to turn into their sanctuary. He acknowledged that the French would never be able to completely wipe out the jihadi forces in the area, but hoped to dismantle the forces enough to eliminate the threat they pose to the Malian government and population.
That's proving harder than initially thought. At one point, the French had indicated they would start pulling out troops this month, but as fighting has intensified, officials now say troops will stay in Mali at least until July.