LONDON: African troops trying to flush out al-Qaeda fighters in northern Mali have fought a major battle with Islamists holed up in a remote mountain range in the Sahara.
Thirteen Chadian soldiers and 65 fighters linked to al-Qaeda were killed during the clashes in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border, where French special forces are also hunting Islamist bases.
The battle was the bloodiest since French troops invaded the country a month ago amid fears that Mali was becoming an al-Qaeda safe haven.
The response from the Islamists suggests that they are far from a spent force. A Chadian military source said Saturday that its forces had attacked a rebel base that appeared to be of "significant importance".
Francois Hollande, the French president, confirmed that French troops had also been in the Adrar area, in what he called a "last phase" of the campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Troops from neighbouring African nations - including 2000 Chadians - are meant to take over leadership of the operation when France begins to withdraw forces from its former West African colony next month.
After driving Islamists from northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu, France and African allies have focused on the remote north-east mountains and desert - an area the size of France - that includes networks of caves, passes and porous borders.
They believe some of the eight French hostages currently held by groups linked to al-Qaeda are being kept in the area.
Fresh fighting has also erupted in northern Mali between ethnic Tuaregs and an unidentified armed group.
Tuaregs of the Azawad National Liberation Movement were fighting on Saturday what one source said "seemed to be Arab fighters" near the northern town of Tessalit, where suicide car bombers killed three people a day earlier.
The al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, has claimed responsibility for the bombings in In-Khalil near Tessalit, saying they were specifically targeting the MNLA, which has been co-operating with French forces to flush out Islamists from northern Mali.
"Through the car bombings against MNLA elements in the In-Khalil zone, the MUJAO is committed to pursuing jihad against infidels," group spokesman Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui said in a statement.
On Thursday, MUJAO also claimed an attack in the northern city of Kidal where a vehicle exploded near a camp occupied by French and Chadian troops.
The mountainous region between Tessalit and Kidal is strategically important, seen as a stronghold for many Tuaregs and used by Islamists as a hideout from French forces.
In Saturday's statement, the MUJAO spokesman warned that future suicide attacks are planned in Mali's capital as well as in the capitals of Burkina Faso and Niger, whose troops are part of the African force in Mali.
"Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey remain favourable zones for our suicide bombers who are ready to make the planned attacks," he said, without elaborating.
He also demanded that the groups holding French hostages in the Sahel region and in Niger kill their victims in revenge against France, which he accused of "staging a crusade against Islam and Muslims".
Seven members of a French family, including four young children, were seized by kidnappers in Cameroon on Tuesday and are believed to have been taken over the border into Nigeria.
French-led forces met little resistance during the initial offensive that drove the Islamists from the main northern centres of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
Now, however, they are facing a guerrilla campaign that includes sudden raids, suicide attacks and land mines.
Barack Obama, the US president, said on Friday that he had deployed 100 troops to neighbouring Niger for unmanned reconnaissance flights over Mali to share intelligence with the French.
The Sunday Telegraph,AFP