Fierce clashes and car bomb attacks have hit northern Mali in some of the worst fighting there since the French intervention began. The US, meanwhile, has deployed surveillance drones to support French efforts in Mali.
At least 13 Chadian troops and some 65 Islamists died in clashes in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali on Friday, while two car bomb attacks killed at least three people near the town of Tessalit.
“On the enemy's side, five vehicles destroyed and 65 terrorists killed,” the Chadian military said in a statement read on the country's state radio. “We deplore the deaths of 13 of our valiant soldiers.”
Chad has deployed some 1,800 troops as part of the French-led military intervention begun in January to wrest control of northern Mali from al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants.
The Islamists have retreated to mountainous redoubts near the border with Algeria, after being expelled French and Malian forces in recent weeks from major population centers in Mali's vast north.
Car bomb attacks near Tessalit
Meanwhile, Tuareg nationalists blamed the car bomb attacks near Tessalit on the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) launched the original uprising that split Mali in two last year. But the MNLA was later sidelined by Islamist groups, such as MUJAO, who took control of the north.
On Friday, MUJOA claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack near a camp occupied by French and Chadian troops in the northern city of Kidal on Thursday. That attack killed at least two people, reported to be civilians.
US deploys surveillance drones
US President Barack Obama announced on Friday that Washington had deployed 100 of its Air Force personnel to Niger, where they will operate unarmed surveillance drones.
In a letter to Congress, the president said that the troops would "provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region.”
Although the US backs the French intervention in Mali, Washington has so far provided only non-combat logistical support, such as refueling and transport aircraft.
slk/ipj (AP, AFP, Reuters)