One dead as militants attack UN camp in Mali

BAMAKO (AFP) - Suspected militants on Friday (Feb 5) attacked a United Nations military camp in the fabled city of Timbuktu in Mali's restive north, leaving a Malian soldier dead and at least one peacekeeper wounded, security sources said.

Shots were still being heard in the area at the end of the morning, after hours of fighting, a source in the UN peacekeeping force in Mali (Minusma) and the Malian army told AFP.

"A Malian officer who was taking part in the hunt for the terrorists was unfortunately killed," a Malian military source said, adding that the soldier died when a wall collapsed on his armoured vehicle.

"We are currently searching for terrorists who are hiding in the buildings," the source said. The clashes were taking place around a large former hotel located between Timbuktu and its airport.

The army had reports that a vehicle being used by the suspected Islamists had "infiltrated the town of Timbuktu itself," the military source added.

"Six to seven terrorists arrived very early in the morning at a Minusma camp in Timbuktu. They blew up their vehicle before attacking the camp with mortars," a source in the UN mission said.

A Nigerian peacekeeper was wounded, the source said, adding that the camp had recently been evacuated by police officers from Nigeria but some soldiers had remained there.

A local resident said the assailants seemed to have "really prepared their plan." "I believe that they first blew up their car so that Minusma forces would come out to inspect the damage, in order to attack them again," he told AFP.

A Malian soldier was killed last month in an ambush on the outskirts of Timbuktu in continuing violence in the sprawling arid north of the country.

Northern Mali fell under the control of Tuareg-led rebels and militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.

The Islamists sidelined the Tuareg to take sole control but were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013.

But Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents wrecked 14 of Timbuktu's earthen shrines built during its 15th and 16th century golden age as an economic, intellectual and spiritual centre.

They considered the shrines, as well as priceless ancient manuscripts, to be idolatrous.

Friday's attack followed a ceremony to consecrate shrines that had been restored with the help of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Large swathes of Mali remain lawless, however, despite a June peace deal between the former Tuareg rebels and rival pro-government armed groups.