PARIS (Reuters) - Malian soldiers killed by a French military strike in northern Mali in October were hostages of Islamist militants, not deserters turned jihadists as French authorities say, Mali's president said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday. Malian and French officials have given contradicting accounts of the Oct. 23 strike on a camp of the Ansar Dine militant group, which the French army said took 15 Islamists "out of action". France's defense minister has said her services had "factual information" showing the fighters were all jihadists, including ex-Malian soldiers enrolled by Islamists, contradicting comments from the Malian defense ministry. But in a interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, Malian President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita insisted that was not the case: "They were the terrorists' hostages and there should be no ambiguity about that between our French friends and us," he said. "It's regrettable, it can unfortunately happen in this type of operations. We should admit it and not look for reasons that don't exist." The Malian government is struggling to contain Tuareg and Islamist violence in northern Mali, some of which is spreading south. Attempts to place officials in northern towns have sometimes failed, raising questions about the government's ability to maintain stability ahead of elections. Islamist militants seized northern Mali in 2012 and French forces intervened a year later. Around 4,000 French troops remain in West Africa's Sahel region as part of Operation Barkhane. France has also been at the forefront of organizing a regional force as part of efforts to find a long-term strategy to exit the region. (Reporting by Sophie Louet; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Mark Potter)
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