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France continues Mali strikes, sends troops to Bamako

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - French forces carried out a second day of air strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali on Saturday and sent troops to protect the capital Bamako in an operation involving several hundred soldiers, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

A French pilot was killed on Friday when his helicopter was shot down during an air strike near the central town of Mopti as France began the operation to help the Malian government stem a push south by rebels who control much of the north, he said.

The operation targeted a column of rebels headed for Mopti, he said.

"In this intense fighting, sadly, one of our pilots ... was fatally injured. He was evacuated to the nearest medical centre before dying of his wounds," Le Drian told a news conference.

He said France had sent special forces into Mopti to prepare the ground and later sent "several hundred" troops into Bamako on Friday to safeguard the capital.

France had additional Rafale fighter jets on standby to be deployed, Le Drian said. President Francois Hollande was due to hold a meeting with defence officials at 3 p.m. (1400GMT).

Le Drian said a raid by French forces in Somalia to try to rescue a French secret agent held hostage there since 2009 was not linked to the Mali intervention. The hostage, Denis Allex, is believed to have died in the raid, along with one soldier, he said. A second soldier was missing.

(Reporting by John Irish; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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