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Hollande: France will pursue operations to oust Islamist rebels in Mali

Richard Nicolas-Nelson / Ecpad via AP

This picture released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office shows French Mirage 2000 D aircraft flying to Mali overnight Thursday into Friday.

Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET: As French aircraft pounded rebel fighters in Mali for a second day Saturday, President Francois Hollande that France will pursue operations to oust Islamist rebels in the West Africa country. 

The intervention, which Hollande said will be African-led, will step up anti-terrorist security measures. Neighboring West African states sped up their plans to deploy troops in the international campaign to prevent groups linked to al Qaida expanding their power base.

"We have already held back the progress of our adversaries and inflicted heavy losses on them. But our mission is not over yet," Hollande said.

French forces earlier launched airstrikes against Islamist rebels and sent troops to protect the capital city of Bamako in an operation involving several hundred soldiers, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

The operation has not started smoothly. A French pilot was killed during intense fighting on Friday when his helicopter was shot down during an attack -- a blow to the start of a campaign that represents the socialist leader's biggest foreign policy test since his May election.

More than 100 people including rebels and government soldiers were killed, according to military sources and witnesses. A resident in Gao, a stronghold of the rebel group, said fighters started arriving with their dead on Saturday.

In a separate incident in Somalia on Saturday, France also lost a commando and a secret agent held hostage since 2009, an operation Hollande said had been planned several days ago. His defense minister said the events in Mali and Somalia are unrelated.  

Special forces dispatched
Defense Minister Le Drian said France had sent special forces into Mopti to prepare the ground.

France had additional Rafale fighter jets on standby to be deployed, he said.

French army chief Edouard Guillaud said Saturday that while its troops would help quash the rebel offensive, there were no current plans to extend operations to northern areas controlled by the Islamists.

Guillaud told reporters that extra military planes had been sent to Africa, after strikes had destroyed half a dozen pick-up trucks belonging to the rebels.

"We are in the buildup phase of operations ... As you know we have planes in Africa and have added more," he said. "The quicker the African mission is on the ground, the less we will need to help the Malian army."

Reuters' Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo contributed reporting.