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Malian, international forces launch operation against Islamists

BAMAKO (Reuters) - French, U.N. and Malian forces on Thursday launched a joint operation against Islamists across northern Mali a day after a suicide attack killed two Chadian peacekeepers in the desert zone.

"It's an operation to sweep identified areas in the three northern regions. It will last as long as is needed," said Lieutenant-Colonel Souleymane Maiga, spokesman for Mali's army.

Colonel Gilles Jaron, a spokesman for the French army, said the operation had been planned before the bomb attack on the U.N. checkpoint in the northern town of Tessalit on Wednesday, in which several people were also injured.

"The aim has not changed, we are putting pressure on terrorists to bring stability to the country," Jaron said.

France dispatched thousands of troops to Mali in January to halt an advance south by Islamists linked to al Qaeda who occupied Mali's three northern desert regions in 2012.

It still has 3,200 soldiers in the country but Paris plans to draw the force down to 1,000 by February.

But this is partly dependent on the roll-out of a U.N. peacekeeping mission, which is so far only at half its mandated strength of 12,600 men.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Marine Pennetier and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Daniel Flynn)