France's defence ministry says a failed attempt by jihadists to retake Mali's northern town of Gao resulted in the deaths of between 15 and 20 Islamists. Two French and several Malian soldiers were wounded.
The battle, which occurred on Thursday, saw some 40 Islamists briefly occupy the city's council chambers and its courthouse. Malian troops, backed by French troops repelled the attack.
Mali's national radio said Friday that troops from Niger also assisted in the expulsion. At least six Malian troops were wounded, the radio station said. It put the number of jihadist insurgents killed at 16.
At the height of the battle, six Malian military pickups opened fire with heavy machineguns on the mayoral quarters to dislodge the insurgents, according to the news agency Reuters. French troops in armored vehicles then joined the battle.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the incident showed that "we are now in a real war."
Gao, which lies alongside the Niger River and 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) north-east of Mali's capital Bamako, was liberated on January 26 by French-led forces who drove out rebels who had seized Mali's vast desert north last year.
Gao became the hub for French operations in a conflict in which rebels have resorted increasingly to guerrilla-style tactics.
The commander of the expanding West African military force AFISMA, Nigerian Major General Shehu Abdul-Kadir said the African and French forces aimed to "eradicate" Islamist rebels in northern Mali.
"This is not a containment mission, this is an eradication mission," Abdul-Kadir told Reuters in Bamako.
Islamists claim bombing
Meanwhile, one of Mali's main Islamist groups, the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has claimed responsibility for a car bombing in another northern city, Kidal.
"More explosions will happen across our territory," MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui told the French news agency AFP.
At least two civilians were wounded when the vehicle exploded just 500 meters (16.4 feet) from a camp occupied by French and Chadian troops deployed as part of the AFISMA mission.
African mission nears full strength
AFISMA says 70 percent of its troops, expected to number more than 8,000 at full strength, have deployed so far to Mali but remain mostly in Mali's south.
Paris has said it hopes to start pulling out some of its 4,000 troops next month.
Earlier this week, Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko had said large-scale military operations in the north were winding down. A French legionnaire was killed on Tuesday in the mountainous Ifoghas region bordering Algeria.
Ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali, who have long sought greater autonomy, initially backed last year's rebellion, but later fell out with the Islamists.
ipj/pfd (dpa, AFP, Reuters)