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By John Irish and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) - A French soldier was killed in the first suicide bombing targeting France's forces in northern Mali, where local and foreign troops are struggling to restore order after putting down an Islamist insurgency last year, officials said.

The attack came just days before French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to visit Mali and President Francois Hollande's visit to West Africa later this week.

Both had been expected to play up the improved security situation in Mali and tout the planned reorganisation of France's 1,700 troops there into a regional counter-terrorism operation.

The Foreign Legion soldier died from wounds after coming under attack about 100 km (60 miles) north of the city of Gao on Monday, the defence ministry said.

He was part of a monitoring mission in the Al Moustarat region north of Gao, Colonel Gilles Jaron, an army spokesman, told Reuters.

"A speeding vehicle approached. We opened fire, stopping the vehicle 10 metres from where we were. But the terrorist activated his explosive charge," he said.

Seven French soldiers were wounded in the blast, three seriously, Jaron said. His is the ninth French death since Paris intervened in its former colony in January 2013.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

France's intervention in the West African nation halted the advance of al Qaeda-linked fighters who had taken advantage of aTuareg separatist uprising and subsequent military coup to seize control of the northern two-thirds of the country in 2012.

France and other Western powers feared the Isla mists could further destabilise the region and use their stronghold in Mali as a launchpad for attacks abroad.

While the French-led military offensive scattered the Islamist fighters across the rugged desert north, they have continued to carry out sporadic attacks on Malian forces and United Nations peace keepers now deployed to the country.

Peace talks between Mali government officials and Tuareg rebels, who are seeking greater autonomy for the north and were not targeted by the French intervention, are due to open in Algeria on Wednesday.

The talks will mark the first meeting since fighting in the Tuareg stronghold town of Kidal killed around 50 Malian soldiers in May.

More than 30 people were injured in clashes in the north over the weekend, underlining the continuing volatility in the region at a time when France is seeking to shift its role there.

(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Writing by Natalie Huet and Joe Bavier; Editing by Bate Felix and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Reuters