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French, Mali troops fight street battles with Islamists in Timbuktu

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

French and Malian troops battled Islamist fighters in the city of Timbuktu in day-long clashes Sunday that left three jihadists and one Malian soldier dead, military sources said.

The Islamists began their assault with a suicide bomb attack on an army checkpoint late Saturday on the edge of the fabled Saharan city that left a Malian soldier wounded.

Militants then infiltrated the city, which French and Malian soldiers recaptured from Islamist rebels in January.

Malian troops battled the rebels and were later joined by a French unit of around 50 soldiers and got further back-up from French fighter jets. A French soldier was wounded in the fighting, the military said in Paris.

Battles continued as night fell on Sunday.

"Jihadists have infiltrated the centre of Timbuktu... Our men are fighting them with the support of a unit of our French partners," a Malian officer told AFP by telephone.

The officer said fighting began when the Islamist rebels opened fire on two sides of the centre of the city, targeting a hotel serving as the temporary residence for the region's governor as well as a Malian military base.

A Malian security source said the governor and two foreign journalists had been among the people evacuated from the targeted hotel.

The fighting left three jihadists and one Malian soldier dead, officials said.

An army source requesting anonymity said a Nigerian hostage 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 northern part of the city.

Mali has been the target of a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents since France launched a military intervention in January against Al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized the north of the country.

The French-led operation has forced the extremists from the cities they seized in the chaotic aftermath of Mali's military coup 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.

The blast killed one Malian soldier. Around 10 Islamist fighters were killed in the ensuing fighting with French and Malian forces.

The attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of three Islamist groups that had seized the north.

MUJAO said it had "opened a new front in Timbuktu", which had not come under attack since French-led forces entered the city on January 28 -- unlike Gao, which has been hit by a string of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks.

A landmine blast killed two Malian soldiers near Gao on Saturday.

The same day, Mali's interim leader Dioncounda Traore appointed Mohamed Salia Sokona -- a former government minister and retired ambassador -- to head a new commission tasked with fostering reconciliation in the conflict-torn west African nation.

Aside from its chairman and two vice-chairmen -- who were also named -- the commission will have another 30 members.

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is due to visit Mali on April 5, on Sunday welcomed the first appointments made to the Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission, calling it "an important step toward political reconciliation".

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130331/french-mali-troops-fight-street-battles-islamists-timbuktu