Mali soldier killed in suicide car bomb in Timbuktu

A Malian soldier was killed and two others wounded when a suicide bomber set off an explosives vest inside a car near the Timbuktu airport in northern Mali, a military source said Thursday.

"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 the military source.

The attack, the first of its kind in Timbuktu, came a day after French President Francois Hollande said the military operation to drive out the Islamists was "in the last phase."

The bomb went off as a group of armed men exchanged fire with French and Malian soldiers as they attempted to force their way into the ancient caravan town, which was occupied by Islamic extremists until early January.

"Since last night we have been hearing gun shots in Timbuktu. There was an attempted infiltration and shooting broke out," which had lessened in intensity by early Thursday morning, 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 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 guerilla 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.