Mali troops sweep Timbuktu for Islamists

File picture shows shows Malian soldiers on patrol in the streets of Timbuktu.  By Fred Dufour (AFP/File)

File picture shows shows Malian soldiers on patrol in the streets of Timbuktu. By Fred Dufour (AFP/File)

BAMAKO (AFP) – Malian troops swept Timbuktu for remaining Islamist fighters on Monday after a weekend battle that left seven people dead and saw France send in fighter jets.

Some gunfire was heard on Monday but the fabled Saharan city was mostly calm, and residents began to emerge from their homes after barricading themselves in when the fighting broke out.

The militants used the confusion created by a suicide bomber late on Saturday to infiltrate the city and engage French and Malian troops in a day-long battle that left four more rebels, a soldier and a civilian dead.

“For the moment it’s calm in Timbuktu. We have the situation under control,” a Malian officer told AFP.

“Our team on the ground is sweeping (the city) and checking whether any jihadists are still active or not.”

The Islamists began their assault with a suicide bombing at an army checkpoint on the edge of Timbuktu that wounded a Malian soldier.

Militants then infiltrated the city, which French and Malian soldiers recaptured from Islamist rebels in January after a 10-month occupation.

They opened fire on two sides of the city centre, targeting a Malian military base and a hotel serving as a temporary residence for the governor.

France sent in a unit of around 50 soldiers to help the Malian army and dispatched fighter jets to back them up.

Three Islamists and one Malian soldier were killed in the fighting, officials said.

A French soldier was wounded, the military said in Paris. Four Malian soldiers were also wounded, officials there said.

An army source said a Nigerian civilian who had been taken hostage also died during a shoot-out between Malian troops and his captor — an Islamist rebel seen wearing a bomb-belt who had holed up in a house in the north of the city.

It was unclear whether the pair had been killed in the firefight or the hostage-taker had detonated his belt.

Mali has been the target of a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents since France launched a military operation in January against Al-Qaeda-linked groups occupying the north of the country.

The French-led operation has forced the extremists from the cities they seized in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup that overthrew Mali’s government in March 2012.

But French and African forces have faced continuing suicide blasts and guerrilla attacks in reclaimed territory.

On March 21, a suicide bomber blew up a car near the Timbuktu airport at the start of an overnight assault on the city.

One Malian soldier died in the blast. Around 10 Islamist fighters were killed in the ensuing fighting with French and Malian forces.

That assault was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of three Islamist groups that had seized the north.

No group has so far claimed last weekend’s attack.