BAMAKO (AFP) – At least three Islamists were killed in Timbuktu on Monday during a sweep by French and Malian soldiers after a deadly weekend battle in the fabled Saharan city, a military source said.
“During our clean-up operation, the Mali and French armies destroyed a public building in the centre of town where the terrorists were hiding. We have found the bodies of three terrorists,” the Malian military source told AFP.
Some gunfire was heard in the city on Monday but residents slowly emerged after having barricaded themselves in during fighting on Sunday.
Islamic militants — who had controlled Timbuktu along with other key northern Mali cities for nearly 10 months until being driven out in January — used the confusion created by a suicide bomber late on Saturday to infiltrate the city.
Having slipped into the ancient caravan town, the extremists engaged French and Malian troops in a day-long battle on Sunday that left four rebels, a soldier and a civilian dead.
“For the moment it’s calm in Timbuktu. We have the situation under control,” a Malian officer had told AFP earlier Monday.
“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 sneaked into the city and 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.
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.