France said Saturday it has deployed troops to Bamako protect its citizens living in Mali's capital and also announced the death of a French pilot during an air offensive launched to halt the advance of Islamist militants, who control much of that West African country's northern region.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a press conference that the order was given Friday to deploy the first French soldiers in Bamako, located in the country's southwest.

The goal is to help protect the capital and ensure the safety of the French expatriate community living there.

That operation could eventually involve several hundred French soldiers, Le Drian said, adding that the French intervention in the landlocked country will last "as long as necessary."

The defense minister also confirmed a report issued Saturday by Mali's army, which said government forces had taken back control of the central town of Konna from the rebels.

Referring to the French helicopter pilot, Le Drian said he was shot and killed during an air offensive "against a terrorist column" heading south to the towns of Mopti and Sevare, two of the northernmost towns of southern Mali still controlled by the government.

The first French soldier killed since the European country's intervention in Mali was identified as army special forces Lt. Damien Boiteux.

Le Drian said the intervention was "indispensable" to halt the push south by Islamist rebels, citing French President Francois Hollande's remarks to the effect that Mali's existence as a democratic state was in jeopardy.

He added that he is keeping his Spanish, German and Italian counterparts abreast of the situation and has received their full political support. EFE