Bamako - About 600 Islamist fighters have been killed since the start of an international military operation to rout Jihadist rebels in Mali, the Malian military said on Wednesday.

“Since the start of the military offensive launched against the Islamists on January 11, 2013, the death toll is 63 dead Malian soldiers and our opponents have lost about 600 soldiers,” army spokesperson Thursday Souleymane was quoted by BFM television as saying.

Mali's military earlier said it had arrested 20 Islamist fighters in house-to-house searches around the northern city of Gao after clashes there over the weekend.

“After the armed groups infiltrated the city of Gao, we have made every effort to stop them,” army spokesperson Captain Modibo Traore was quoted by Mali's national radio as saying. “In the fighting, there were seven deaths, including four Islamists.”

A soldier and two civilians also died in clashes, and four Malian soldiers were injured.

Gao used to be a stronghold of Islamist rebels who were routed by a French-led military operation at the end of January.

The area is difficult to secure due to the many gates leading into the city, Traore said.

“We have beefed up security around the city. Searches continue throughout the city,” he said.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed sending 11 200 peacekeepers to Mali, or to strengthen the UN's political office in Mali and mandate the West African military mission called AFISMA with security and combat operations.

The Security Council was due to discuss the proposal later on Wednesday.

The European Union is also present in the country, with a mission to train Malian soldiers still on track to be launched on April 2, its commander said during a visit to Brussels.

An analysis of the Malian army has found that “everything needs to be rebuilt and redone”, French General Francois Lecointre said.

“It is an unstructured army that collapsed on itself because it suffered 20 years of systematic under-budgeting and distrustful political powers,” he noted.

It is also woefully under-equipped, with Lecointre calling on EU member states to further step up their donations of military equipment, which he said have not yet been “convincing”.

The first battalion the EU will train in the town of Koulikoro features about 670 troops from four Malian regions and with two to three years of military experience, Lecointre said.

It will not include any soldiers of Tuareg origin, whose ethnic group has been blamed for joining forces with Islamists in their bid for independence in the north of Mali.

Lecointre acknowledged that there is “a problem between north and south” in the country, but said it is a political issue he is not planning to get involved in.

The EU is set to train approximately 3 000 soldiers as part of its mission's initial 15-month mandate. More than 20 European countries are contributing to the operation. - Sapa-dpa