Islamist militants armed with rockets and explosives raided the headquarters of an African military task force in central Mali, leaving at least six people dead, a force spokesman said.
Assailants driving a vehicle rigged with bombs attacked the compound in Sevare as some exchanged gunfire with Malian troops and fought to get in, officials said.
Pictures from the scene show the charred remains of a vehicle, a crater and battered walls of buildings, used by the G5 Sahel, a regional force created last year to root out jihadists in West Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region
A spokesman for the G5 force – made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – said two soldiers and four assailants died.
“The attackers fired rockets at the headquarters and some infiltrated the compound. There was an exchange of fire,” defence ministry spokesman Boubacar Diallo told Reuters.
A UN source in Sevare, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the compound was hit by a car bomb. Gunfire died down by mid-afternoon, the source added.
Extremism watchdog SITE, which monitors militant activity globally, said Al Qaeda’s branch in Mali reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack and described it as a suicide bombing.
The attack comes a month before Mali’s presidential election.
Violence by Islamist militants proliferated in the sparsely-populated Sahel in recent years, with groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State using central and northern Mali as a launch pad for attacks.
Western powers, including France and the United States, provided significant funding to the G5 in a bid to beat back the jihadists. The force has been slow to get off the ground, hobbled by delays disbursing the money and co-ordinating among the five countries.
The French defence ministry said around 15 assailants were killed when a detachment of its forces, alongside Malian commandos, clashed with a group of around 20 militants on June 22.
It said the clash, which required helicopter support, led to the seizure or destruction of materiel including two pickups and six motorcycles, munitions and heavy and light weapons.