A French soldier has been killed while fighting rebels in northern Mali's mountainous Iforhas region, Francois Hollande, France's president, has said.

The dead serviceman was identified as Staff Sergeant Harold Vormezeele, a commando with the Second Foreign Parachute Regiment, an elite unit of the French Foreign Legion.

"A legionnaire from the second parachute regiment has died in a clash with Islamists in northern Mali," Hollande told reporters in Athens.

A French defence ministry statement on Tuesday said that nearly 20 rebels had also been killed in the ongoing fighting.

The ministry said that the parachute regiment of 150 soldiers supported by a heavy vehicle patrol and Mirage fighter jets had come under fire on Tuesday morning.

The death of the soldier brings to two the number of French killed since France, Mali's one-time colonial ruler, launched a military intervention on January 11 to push out rebels who had taken over the country's vast north.

A helicopter pilot was killed on the first day of the intervention.

The operation in a mountainous region where rebels are holed up is in its "last phase", Hollande, on a visit to Greece, said.

The French-led operation aims at preventing the rebels, who are fighting to introduce Islamic law, from taking more territory in the country.

About 4,000 French troops, backed by the Malian army and several thousand troops from other African states, have driven the rebel fighters out of the main cities into the northern mountains.

"It's no longer a question of simply arresting the terrorists, making the territory safe, but to go to the end of the mission and that means arresting the last leaders of these groups that are in the extreme north of Mali," the French president said.

Source: Agencies