French and Malian troops clashed with Islamist rebels near the large town of Gao, Paris said on Wednesday after reporting that hundreds of insurgents had been killed in a "real war" to reclaim northern Mali.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the extremist rebels, who have been driven from key strongholds which they had controlled in northern Mali for 10 months, struck back at troops with rocket fire on Tuesday.
"There were clashes yesterday around Gao," Le Drian said on Europe 1 radio. "Once our troops, supported by Malian forces, started patrols around the towns that we have taken, they met residual jihadist groups who are still fighting.
The confirmation of clashes comes after one of the militant groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), said it had attacked military positions in Gao.
On Tuesday, Le Drian said "several hundred" Al Qaeda-linked militants had been killed by French air strikes as well as "direct combat in the key central and northern towns of Konna and Gao.
France's sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot killed at the start of the military operation 27 days ago.
Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded after the battle at Konna last month but has not since released a new death toll.
The Malian army took "some prisoners, not many, who will have to answer to Malian courts and to international justice," Le Drian said, adding that some of those detained were high-ranking militants.
Nearly 4,000 French troops have been deployed in Mali since the former colonial power swept to the country's aid on January 11 as a triad of Islamist groups pushed south towards the capital. This number will not be increased.
While President Francois Hollande has said his troops will remain in Mali for as long as they are needed, Paris is keen to step back and let some 8,000 African troops take the reigns.AFP