Four Malian civilians were killed by a landmine in territory reclaimed from Islamist rebels, police said Thursday as France mulled handing over its four-week-old intervention to UN peacekeepers.
The deadly explosion Wednesday between the northern towns of Douentza and Gao came six days after a similar blast in the same area killed two Malian troops, underlining the danger the Islamist fighters still pose despite fleeing the towns under their control.
An officer with Mali's paramilitary police initially said the four dead were Malian soldiers, but later said they were in fact civilians returning from a weekly market.
The mine was "placed by the Islamist criminals", the officer said.
An official with a local truck drivers' union confirmed the incident and also said the dead were civilians.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali for 10 months, said it had "created a new combat zone" and claimed two recent attacks on the road to Gao, the largest city in the north.
"MUJAO is behind the explosion of two Malian army cars," the group's spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui said in a text message sent to AFP.
He called on Malians to stay away from main roads, which he said had been heavily mined.
"We urge infinite jihad and a struggle against infidel regimes and the establishment of God's sharia and for Muslims to be freed," he added.
Nearly a month after it sent in the first fighter jets and attack helicopters, France's intervention has largely driven the Al-Qaeda-linked rebels into the remote mountains of the far northeast, stopping their threatened advance on the capital, Bamako.
But French-led forces continue to come under attack in reclaimed territory, including rocket fire directed against them Tuesday in Gao.
With fears of a prolonged insurgency, Paris is keen to hand over the military burden of an operation the defence ministry said has already cost France 70 million euros ($95 million), with the figure rising by 2.7 million euros per day.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said patrols in reclaimed towns had encountered "residual jihadist groups who are still fighting".
In Gao, French-led forces have beefed up security to prevent rebels infiltrating the city, according to a Malian army source.
An AFP journalist reported large patrols by French, Malian and Nigerien troops, and French helicopters have been patrolling the road between Gao and Douentza, 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the southwest.
The area is littered with landmines and improvised explosive devices, according to security sources.
After announcing plans to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali in March, France called Wednesday for a United Nations peacekeeping force to take over.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a peacekeeping force could be in place by April, incorporating troops being deployed under the banner of a West African intervention force, AFISMA, into a UN mission.
-- 'New national pact' --
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is slowly deploying some 6,000 troops in Mali, joined by another 2,000 from Chad.
France's ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, said it would take "several weeks" to make an assessment on deploying peacekeepers but that the Security Council had "no objections" to the plan.
France now has as many soldiers in Mali as it had at the peak of its deployment in Afghanistan in 2010.
French fighter jets continue to pound the area around the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the far northeast, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves where the insurgents are believed to have fled with seven French hostages.
Le Drian said Tuesday the French-led operation had so far killed "several hundred" Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
France's sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot killed at the start of the operation. Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded in early fighting but has not since released a new death toll.
An opinion poll released Thursday found 73 percent of French support their country's intervention in the former colony. Just 27 percent oppose it, according to the survey by polling firm IFOP.
In Cairo, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation expressed support for efforts to help Mali "regain its territorial integrity", an apparent nod of approval for France's military intervention.
The OIC summit also slammed the "despicable actions committed against civilians... and the destruction of cultural sites, such as those classified by UNESCO as world heritage" sites -- a reference to the Islamist rebels' destruction of ancient Muslim saints' shrines in northern Mali, which they considered idolatrous.
OIC members Egypt and Qatar had previously criticised France's intervention.