French army kills 15 Mali jihadists

Paris - The French army said on Thursday it had eliminated an "armed terrorist group" linked to Al-Qaeda in northern Mali, killing 15 jihadists.

Army spokesperson Patrick Steiger said troops from France's regional Barkhane anti-terror operation had carried out a joint strike against the group with French special forces about 100km northeast of Kidal.

The operation, which was backed by fighter jets and helicopters, took place overnight on Monday.

It "allowed us to take 15 members of this katiba out of action", Steiger said, using a local word for a militant unit.

The group was a branch of Ansar Dine, which has links to the regional Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) group, he added, saying weapons and ammunition including assault rifles and grenades were destroyed in the raid.

France has had some 4 000 soldiers deployed in the Sahel region - a vast stretch of territory on the edge of the Sahara Desert - since 2014.

The announcement in Paris came as the Mali-based branch of al-Qaeda, Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, claimed an attack in the north that killed two soldiers.

US monitoring group SITE said the claims were made on the Telegram messenger channel of the group's so-called Al-Zallaqa Media Foundation.

"Fighters mounted a surprise attack on the Malian army position in Soumpi, killing two soldiers and burning military vehicles as well as those belonging to Sogea-Satom," a French road construction company that the troops had been "guarding", it said.

A second communique reported attacks on gendarmerie posts in Dioro and Ouan in central Mali on Monday and a landmine blast on a Malian army vehicle in the Mopti region on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Malian defence ministry said two troops had been killed and a third injured in a "terrorist" attack in Soumpi.

Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda took control of the desert north of Mali in early 2012 at the expense of Tuareg rebels, but were chased out of Sahara towns by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013, which is still under way.

Mali's army, French soldiers and a UN mission (MINUSMA) are battling for control over large tracts of the country, which regularly come under attack in spite of a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in May and June 2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.

Since 2015, jihadist attacks have spread to the centre and south of Mali and latterly to neighbouring countries, particularly Burkina Faso and Niger.

The creation of Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen was announced on March 2 as a fusion of Ansar Dine, the Al-Murabitoun of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the "Emirate of the Sahara," a branch of AQMI.

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