A French airforce pilot was killed in airstrikes against Islamist rebels in central Mali, which destroyed several of the rebels vehicles and beat them into retreat, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Saturday.

Mr Le Drian said the helicopter pilot was killed during clashes with the rebels who were attempting to push on south towards the towns of Mopti and Sevare after capturing the central town of Kona on Thursday.

The airstrikes in support of government forces trying to hold back the rebels “halted their (the rebels) progress, Mr Le Drian said. The airstrikes continued Saturday morning, he said.

Earlier reports said that Kona was recaptured by Malian troops within hours of the joint offensive.

Meanwhile, French troops have begun deploying in the capital Bamako to protect the population and French nationals there, he said.

Mr Le Drian said “a few hundred” troops would be deployed.

France has 6,000 nationals in Mali, who have been advised by the Foreign Ministry to leave the country. A first flight of French nationals from Bamako landed in Paris on Saturday morning.

France is the first Western country to intervene to help Mali’s government fighting the rebels who took control of the desert north nearly a year ago.

French President Francois Hollande authorised the intervention on Friday after Mali formally requested French help to stop the rebels marching south towards Bamako.

Mr Le Drian reiterated that the French intervention would continue “as long as necessary, to prevent the rebels setting up a “terrorist state within reach of Europe.” The UN Security Council last year approved the deployment of an African force to help the Malian army win back control of the north from the fundamentalist rebels, who have imposed strict sharia law, including amputations and stonings.

But the 3,300-strong West African force was not due to arrive in Mali until September, giving the rebels a chance to continue their advance.

Mr Hollande said on Friday the French intervention was in line with the UN resolution, which also approved an EU military training mission for Mali.

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