4 Min Read
* First attack on town since liberation nearly two months ago
* Fighting raged overnight but French say attackers repelled
* Attacks follows French claim that Mali under control in days (Adds French statement, background)
By Adama Diarra
BAMAKO, March 21 (Reuters) - A suicide car-bomber killed a Malian soldier and wounded six others in a raid on the airport in Timbuktu overnight, just a day after Paris said a French-led campaign had nearly driven Islamists out of all of northern Mali.
France said 10 Islamist fighters were killed in the raid on the ancient desert trading town, the first suicide attack there since French and Malian troops chased al Qaeda-linked militants from Timbuktu nearly two months ago. It comes weeks ahead of the planned start of France's withdrawal from Mali.
Captain Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for Mali's army in Timbuktu, said the Malian soldier was killed when an Islamist detonated a car bomb at a checkpoint near positions held by French soldiers controlling the airport.
"We are mopping up to see if there are any other attackers in the area," he added.
The French military said French air support and troops took part in fighting overnight to repel the attack. There were no French casualties.
"About 10 terrorists were killed during this operation," French army spokesman Thierry Burkhard said in Paris.
A resident in the northern town said he heard two air strikes overnight and gunfire in the early morning but by 0900 GMT (9:00 a.m. local) fighting had stopped. French war planes flew overhead on Thursday morning, he said.
A French military officer in Mali, who asked not to be named, said some 30 Islamists took part in the raid.
"It took a while but the result was good," the officer said.
However, Burkhard said two Malian soldiers had been slightly wounded by friendly fire when the French intervened.
The French-led offensive in Mali has pushed a mix of Islamists out of the northern towns and the remote mountain bases they had occupied but the militants have hit back with several suicide attacks on newly freed towns.
French President Francois Hollande said late on Wednesday that French troops were in the last phase of operations and virtually all of Mali's territory would be freed "within days".
African forces also operating in Mali said they had secured the Wagadou Forest, to the west of Timbuktu.
A French diplomatic source told Reuters he believed the French operation was "in the final straight" in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, near Algeria, where core Islamist leaders are believed to have fled.
But the attack on Timbuktu - which had not previously seen the guerrilla-style attacks mounted in Gao and Kidal, northern Mali's two other main towns - is likely to raise concerns over plans by Paris to start withdrawing troops next month.
Underscoring the pockets of Islamist resistance that are still holding out, the French defence ministry said late on Wednesday that about 15 militants had been killed in a week of operations in Gao region.
Mali's army remains in tatters after a coup and a string of morale-sapping defeats last year, and African troops due to replace the French lack logistics, funding and training.
Efforts to rescue at least seven French hostages held by Islamists in Mali have so far failed and Mauritanian media reported this week that al Qaeda's wing in the region had claimed to have killed one in retaliation for the operation.
France has said it cannot confirm the report. (Writing and additional reporting by David Lewis; Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, John Irish and Cyril Altmeyer in Paris; Editing by Sophie Hares)