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A Malian soldier died in Timbuktu's first suicide bombing as the city came under assault Wednesday night, after French President Francois Hollande vowed a military operation to drive out radical Islamists from Mali was in its last phase.
The bomb went off as a group of armed men, trying to force their way into the ancient city, exchanged fire with French and Malian soldiers who chased out the Islamists in late January.
"A boobytrapped car exploded during the night (Wednesday) near the Timbuktu airport ... The jihadist who set off his belt was killed instantly and one of the soldiers injured in the explosion died in hospital," said a military source on Thursday.
Two other soldiers were injured in the explosion.
Sources in the town reported sustained gunfire until about 3am (local and GMT) on Thursday morning.
"Since last night we have been hearing gun shots in Timbuktu. There was an attempted infiltration and shooting broke out," a local government official told AFP.
"A vehicle carrying armed people tried to enter Timbuktu by force on Wednesday night and French and African soldiers retaliated," a security source in the town said.
French and Malian troops in late January freed the fabled caravan city, a mythic symbol of remoteness, from the nine-month rule of Al Qaeda-linked Islamists who had imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population.
The city has remained calm since, unlike the northeastern city of Gao, which has been hit by several suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks since the Islamists were driven out.
Fighting in recent weeks has been concentrated in the Ifoghas mountains in the extreme northeast of the country where French and Chadian soldiers are trying to flush out the rebels.
Paris has said it hopes to begin the withdrawal of some 4,000 troops in Mali from the end of April and hand over responsibility to Malian troops and an African stabilisation force.
The former colonial power intervened on January 11 with a lightning drive to oust the Islamists who were advancing on the capital Bamako after having seized key towns in the vast arid north some nine months earlier.
Friday will mark one year since mid-level army officers carried out a coup which paved the way for the Islamist takeover and led to the devastating collapse of one of West Africa's stable democracies.
On Wednesday Hollande said: "In the last phase where we are, almost the entire territory will return to Mali's sovereignty in a few days."
His comments came as Paris scrambled to verify a claim by Al-Qaeda's north African branch that it had executed a French hostage in retaliation for France's military intervention in Mali.
A man claiming to be a spokesman for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) told Mauritania's ANI news agency late Tuesday that "spy" Philippe Verdon had been executed in Mali on March 10 "in response to France's intervention in northern Mali".
"The French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages," the spokesman warned.
The French foreign ministry said it was trying to verify the report.
In all 15 French nationals, including Verdon who was kidnapped in November 2011, are being held captive in Africa, with AQIM claiming responsibility for six of the kidnappings.
Five French soldiers have died in combat since the start of the operations.
The French troops in the region are backed up by African forces. Soldiers from Chad, whose experience and training has made them key in the French-led offensive, have also suffered casualties with at least 26 deaths.
On Tuesday the French army announced that 15 Islamist fighters had been killed in recent days in the northern Mali region of Gao, with the seizure of a large cache of arms and ammunition.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday hailed France's military intervention in Mali in a phone call with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, thanking Paris for its "active leadership", officials said.
After initially hesitating, the United States has backed the French-led action with logistical support, sending transport planes, surveillance drones and refueling tankers to boost the campaign.
Meanwhile, France has recalled its ambassador to Mali after he reportedly fell out with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, a diplomatic source in the west African nation told AFP on Thursday.
Christian Rouyer, an outspoken advocate for the French military intervention, had been in the role since 2011 but was said to be in disagreement with Fabius.