BAMAKO (Reuters) - A suicide car-bomber killed a Malian soldier and wounded six others in a raid on the airport in Timbuktu overnight, a spokesman for Mali's army said on Thursday, triggering a counterattack by French forces.
It was the first suicide bombing in Timbuktu since French and Malian forces chased al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants from the ancient trading town nearly two months ago, and comes weeks ahead of the planned start to France's withdrawal from Mali.
"It happened at the Malian army checkpoint, just before the French checkpoint ... we are mopping up to see if there are any other attackers in the area," said Captain Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for Mali's army in Timbuktu.
A French military officer in Mali said French air support and troops took part in fighting overnight to repel the attack and there were no French casualties.
"There were about 30 attackers ... It took a while but the result was good," the officer said, asking not to be named. The officer did not say if any of the attackers were killed or captured.
A resident in the northern town said he heard two air strikes overnight and gunfire in the early morning but by 0900 GMT fighting appeared to have stopped. French war planes flew overhead on Thursday morning, he said.
French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard confirmed French and Malian forces had repelled an attempt to infiltrate the airport but gave no further details.
The French-led offensive in Mali has pushed a mix of Islamists out of the northern towns and the remote mountain bases they had occupied, but the militants have hit back with several suicide attacks on the newly freed towns.
French President Francois Hollande said late on Wednesday that French troops were in the last phase of operations and virtually all of Mali's territory would be freed "within days".
But the attack on Timbuktu - which had not previously seen the guerrilla-style attacks mounted in Gao and Kidal, northern Mali's two other main towns - is likely to raise concerns over plans by Paris to start withdrawing troops next month.
Mali's army remains in tatters after a coup and a string of morale-sapping defeats last year and African troops due to replace the French lack logistics, funding and training.
(Reporting by David Lewis; Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas in Paris; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alison Williams)