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A suicide bomber killed at least three Chadian soldiers in Mali Friday, military sources said, in a deadly demonstration of the troubled nation's ongoing security crisis days after France began withdrawing its troops.
The soldiers were shopping in the northern city of Kidal when an Islamist bomber struck, according to Malian and Chadian sources who gave a provisional toll of three soldiers killed and four wounded.
"Three Chadian soldiers were killed in an attack Friday in Kidal. It was jihadists who did it. The toll is still provisional," a Malian military source told AFP while a Chadian source spoke of "three Chadian soldiers killed and four others injured".
No details were initially available on how the attack was carried out.
"The centre of Kidal is now sealed off. This is an Islamist attack against the Chadian troops," said one regional security source.
Located 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of Bamako, Kidal houses bases for the French and Chadian armies who provide security while the city is run by Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
It is the chief town of a region of the same name that includes the Ifoghas mountains, where French and Chadian soldiers have spent several weeks hunting and engaging entrenched Islamist fighters.
The city has already seen two suicide bombings, on February 21 and 26, the first targeting French military and killing the driver of the car bomb and the second killing seven MNLA members manning a checkpoint.
Former Burundian president Pierre Buyoya, the African Union representative in Bamako, condemned Friday's attack during a press conference in the Malian capital.
He said the 6000-strong African-led International Support Mission to Mali and its partners were "determined to help the brother country of Mali to ensure the security of all of its territory".
The attack came at the end of a week in which French troops began an early withdrawal from Mali three months after ousting armed Islamists from the country's north.
Paris pulled out 100 soldiers ahead of schedule on Monday as part of a phased withdrawal of the majority of its 4,000 troops.
France has said it will leave 2,000 soldiers on the ground throughout the summer, reducing its presence by the end of the year to a "support force" of 1,000 fighting alongside a UN-mandated army of some 11,000 troops.
But the attack will turn the spotlight on Mali's poorly paid, ill-equipped and badly organised military which fell apart last year in the face of an uprising by Tuareg rebels and then an Islamist occupation of the north.
The cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal fell in March 2012 to Tuareg rebels who took advantage of the chaos following a coup to declare independence for the entire desert north before losing control to Islamist insurgents.
The extremists terrorised locals with amputations and executions performed under their interpretation of Islamic law, drawing global condemnation.
While French-led troops have inflicted severe losses on the Islamists, driving them from Mali's northern cities, soldiers are still battling significant pockets of resistance around Gao.
One thousand French soldiers have been conducting an operation to destroy Islamist infrastructure in a valley north of Gao since Sunday while an EU mission is training Malian soldiers to improve their chances of containing the insurgents.
Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko called on France Thursday to keep a permanent military presence in Mali.
The international community, particularly the US, has voiced concerns over security and is pushing for a formal process of reconciliation between the deeply divided nation's diverse ethnic communities ahead of elections scheduled for July.
Many questions remain about the possibility of holding polls so soon due to continued instability in the north, which has still not seen the return of some 400,000 who forced from their homes by the conflict.
Some 74,000 Malian refugees displaced by war and ethnic tensions are suffering "deplorable" conditions in Mauritanian desert camps, with just one toilet between 3,000 people, aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres said in a report Friday.