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Clashes in Timbuktu

March 31, 2013

Islamist militants have launched an attack on Timbuktu in northern Mali, penetrating the city center. French forces have deployed to help the Malian military repel the Islamist fighters.

Malian soldiers patrol in the streets of Timbuktu on February 1, 2013, as French-led troops worked today to secure the last Islamist stronghold in the north after a lightning offensive against the extremists. The fabled desert city of Timbuktu, an ancient centre of Islamic learning, has been recaptured on January 28 by French-led forces in their offensive against Islamist rebels who have been occupying Mali's north since last April. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Malian troops evacuated the regional governor and two foreign journalists from Hotel Colombe in Timbuktu's city center over the weekend, after it came under attack by Islamist militants.

The fighting in Timbuktu began around 10 p.m. local time Saturday, when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a Malian military checkpoint at the western entrance to the city. The Islamists then entered Timbuktu under the cover of nightfall.

Malian troops and their French allies battled to regain control over the city on Sunday. According to the news agency AFP, three Islamists and one Malian soldier have been killed in the fighting.

"The fighting is heavy and it is ongoing," Mali army Captain Modibo Naman Traore told Reuters news agency. “We are in the process of encircling them."

Brewing guerilla war

The weekend attack was the first time that Islamist militants had managed to infiltrate Timbuktu since they had been expelled by French and Malian forces on January 28. France intervened in Mali in January, after the al Qaeda-linked militants that controlled the country's north made a push for the capital, Bamako.

Although French President Francois Hollande has said that France has achieved all of its goals in the war-torn West African nation, suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks have become increasingly commonplace.

Hollande has said that France will reduce its troop numbers to 2,000 by July and 1,000 by the end of the year. Paris has 4,000 soldiers currently deployed in Mali.

The African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) is supposed to be turned into a UN peacekeeping mission and take over from the French forces. AFISMA currently has 6,300 troops stationed in Mali. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said 11,200 peacekeepers may be needed to secure the country.

slk/hc (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)