The reported killings of two al-Qaeda linked leaders recently in northern Mali raised fears in France over the fates of French hostages held in Africa.
The French defense minister said Sunday a third French soldier had been killed in Mali during the heaviest fighting since the European country lead the intervention in mid-January.
“The memory of his sacrifice in some of the heaviest fighting that we have carried out on Malian territory will guide us forever,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Twitter, after the announcement of the soldier's death amid fighting in northern Mali on Saturday.
The seven-week campaign has driven the al Qaeda-linked fighters into mountainous regions and desert redoubts, according to Reuters, that is where they faced hundreds of French, Chadian and Malian troops.
A Malian military source told AFP at least 50 Al-Qaeda-linked rebel fighters have been killed in the last couple of near the town of Gao in northern Mali.
The source said the fighting continued Sunday morning but noted “we have the situation under control”.
Despite the French and Malian troop’s gains on the ground, experts are concerned over the hostages’ fate.
This could explain why France has been reluctant to confirm the announcements from Chad over the deaths of prominent extremists Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.
Supporters of the hostages and their families said there were real fears they had been caught up in the crossfire during the operations that reportedly led to the Islamists' deaths.
“This is a rumor that is enormously worrying for the families and those of us who support them,” said Didier Beguin from the support committee for four French hostages abducted by radical Islamists in Niger in September 2010.
“We can imagine something positive from this and the quick release (of the hostages), but we can also imagine the worst. For now this uncertainty is leaving us even more concerned,” he told AFP.
A total of 15 French hostages are being held on African soil, including at least seven being held by Islamist militants in the Sahel region
On Saturday, Chad announced they had killed Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Islamist leader who masterminded the assault on the Algerian gas plant in January. It left 37 foreign hostages dead
The country on Friday also announced its troops had killed Abou Zeid , the top commander of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, during a major battle that also left 26 Chadian soldiers dead.
Both men were directly involved in most of the kidnappings of foreigners that have plagued the region in recent years. Abou Zeid was believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including the four French citizens kidnapped in Niger.