A Malian soldier died in Timbuktu's first suicide bombing as the city came under assault overnight, triggering clashes in which ten Islamist fighters died, military officials said Thursday.
The bomb went off near the ancient city's airport as a group of armed men clashed with French and Malian soldiers, in an incident that cast doubt on suggestions the Islamist resistance in Mali is close to being quashed.
"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," a military source here said.
A French army spokesman in Paris confirmed the death of a Malian soldier and said around ten Islamists had been killed in the clashes.
Colonel Thierry Burkhard also revealed that two Malian soldiers had been lightly injured as a result of an airstrike by French planes.
Sources in the town reported sustained gunfire until about 3am (local and GMT) on Thursday morning.
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 lingering groups of 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 collapse of one of West Africa's stable democracies.
President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday that France's military operation in Mali was entering its final phase.
His comments came as Paris attempted to verify a claim by Al-Qaeda's north African branch that it had executed a French hostage, Philippe Verdon, in retaliation for the intervention.
Five French soldiers have died in combat since the start of the operations while Chad has lost 26 troops.
Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat said Thursday that the mission in the Ifoghas was "70 percent" completed.
"The joint Franco-Chadian drive has accomplished an important task in the Ifoghas where cleaning-up operations are now underway," he told journalists in Paris.
"I believe that more than 70 percent of the work has been done. But we have a special adversary in a special setting and therfore we have to be careful. There is still work to be done in Mali and especially in the north."
Meanwhile, France confirmed Thursday that it recalled its ambassador to Mali. Christian Rouyer, an outspoken advocate of the military intervention, has been brought back to Paris early for reasons that remained unclear Thursday.