Islamist group claims attack that killed French soldier in Mali

DAKAR/ABIDJAN Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:22pm EDT

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DAKAR/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - An armed Islamist group formed by al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility on Thursday for a suicide bombing this week that killed a French soldier in northern Mali.

In a video posted on the Internet, a spokesman for the group Al-Mourabitoun, identifying himself as Abu Assem Al-Muhajir, said the attack north of Gao, was "a response to French claims that they had annihilated the Mujahideen (Islamic fighters)".

Al-Mourabitoun was formed last year from the fusion of two Islamist groups operating in northern Mali: the Mulathameen brigade, led by the one-eyed Belmokhtar who is thought to have masterminded an attack on an Algerian gas plant last year in which nearly 40 hostages were killed, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the claim, which came as French President Francois Hollande began a visit to West Africa that will take him to Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad.

Hollande said on Thursday it had not been possible to identify those responsible for the attack "because the author or the authors killed themselves and there isn't much left of them".

"We are carrying out our investigations but what does this prove? It proves that there are still terrorist groups in northern Mali, even if they have been greatly weakened, and that there are still risks," Hollande told a news conference in the Ivorian commercial capital Abidjan.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to visit Gao on Thursday as France prepares to reorganise its 1,700 troops in Mali into a regional force to counter terrorism in the Sahara and the arid Sahel region to its south.

It was the ninth death of a French soldier since Paris intervened in its former colony in January 2013 to break the grip of armed Islamist groups on the country's remote desert, amid fears they could use the enclave to attack neighbouring countries and Western targets.

France's defence ministry said on Tuesday that seven soldiers taking part in a reconnaissance mission were wounded in the attack, three of them seriously, including Foreign Legion soldier Dejvid Nikolic, who later died of his injuries.

The al-Mourabitoun spokesman said several suicide attackers had taken part in the strike on the French armoured convoy.

(Reporting by Daniel Flynn and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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