Timbuktu has been hit by a prolonged battle between Islamist extremists and the Malian and French armies, residents and a Malian military spokesman said yesterday.
Fighters linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, attacked the city in northern Mali late on Saturday and continued fighting yesterday, said Captain Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu.
The attack started at about 10pm local time when a jihadist suicide bomber blew himself up at a Malian military checkpoint at the western entrance to Timbuktu, he said.
“The jihadist was on foot and died on the spot, but his explosives lightly injured one of our soldiers,” said Capt Coulibaly.
A Malian soldier at an entrance to the city said: “The jihadists are a few. They sneaked into the military camp and the city of Timbuktu. There is shooting at the moment, but we’ll get to the end.”
The French military joined the Malian army to fight the Islamic radicals, said Timbuktu residents.
As of yesterday afternoon, shooting could still be heard in the city, said resident Age Djitteye. He said one of the jihadists tried to take cover inside his family’s compound: “He was young. He was wearing a robe, and had ammunition belts across his chest and a turban. He came inside our compound, and then the French came. He ran and they chased him.”
Mr Djitteye said a suicide bomber blew himself up on one of the few paved roads at the heart of Timbuktu, close to the Hotel Colombe, the town’s main hotel used by journalists and aid workers.
The fighters had taken over the back of the hotel complex, near the swimming pool, said Agaly Cisse, a hotel employee. The hotel had been hosting a large government delegation, including the governor of the region, he said. The guests were moved to the French army base, Mr Cisse said.
He said French planes were circling overhead and French and Malian forces were fighting the jihadists.
Another group of fighters took cover inside the local high school, Mr Djitteye said.
Timbuktu mayor Ousmane Halle also said the Islamic radicals moved to the high school, near the army camp in the city. “Traffic is prohibited in the city. I stayed home,” said Mr Halle. “People are really scared, but it is mostly due to the lack of information about what is happening in the city.”
This is the first major attack on Timbuktu since it was liberated by French forces on January 28. Earlier this month a suicide bomber detonated himself at a checkpoint. That attack did not lead to an infiltration by the extremists into the city.