A rocket and car bomb attack left one U.N. peacekeeper dead, a dozen wounded and another dozen French soldiers hurt at the international “Super Camp” neighbouring Timbuktu’s airport, Mali’s security ministry said on Saturday.
At least a dozen rockets were fired by gunmen wearing blue helmets who had vehicles rigged with bombs, one of which had improvised U.N. markings.
The ministry said on Facebook that a “terrorist attack” targeted France’s Barkhane camp as well as U.N. troops stationed outside the northern Mali city just after 2 p.m.
“Terrorists wearing blue helmets aboard two cars laden with explosives, including one in the colours of the Malian army and another with a ‘U.N.’ written in it, attempted to infiltrate these camps,” the Malian government statement said, Reuters reported.
“One of the vehicles exploded, while the second bearing the U.N. sign was halted,” the statement said.
#Mali: Photo of the covert VBIED disguised as #UN vehicle which failed to detonate or taken out of action amidst today's attack against #Timbuktu Airport which harbors both #Barkane forces and #MINUSMA peacekeepers pic.twitter.com/tSx05S2LSx
— MENASTREAM (@MENASTREAM) April 14, 2018
The ministry said the latest casualty toll was one U.N. soldier dead, a dozen wounded, five of them seriously, and a dozen French soldiers also hurt.
“The fighting ended around 18h30. The area is being searched. The situation is under control,” it added.
A local journalist reported that six civilians including a child were treated for bullet wounds.
The United Nations had earlier released the same toll for its troops.
In a tweet, the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali announced, “One blue helmet was killed in gunfire exchanges with the assailants, a dozen wounded.”
Minusma had earlier “confirmed a major and complex attack on the camp at Timbuktu this afternoon (mortars + exchanges of fire + suicide attack vehicle)”.
Update April 15 The French armed forces gave more detail in a Sunday Facebook post.
The attack, which aimed to take control of the camp, “included indirect fire, presumably mortars, and the explosion of three vehicle bombs in order to create a breach in the enclosure,” the post said, adding that some of the assailants wore explosive belts.
Reinforcements were sent from Gao and Niamey including a Mirage 2000 fighter jet, a Tiger helicopter, and commandos deployed by NH90 helicopter and tactical transport aircraft.
“At least 15 terrorists” were put “out of action,” while seven French soldiers were wounded.
French military spokesperson Patrik Steiger told AFP that the attackers had “failed in their objective of causing the maximum damage possible.”
Steiger said some of the attackers were killed outside the military camp’s outer walls, but that others “managed to enter, including some disguised as peacekeepers,” he said, adding there were no incidents of friendly fire.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres later said in a statement that the peacekeeper killed was from Burkina Faso, and that seven peacekeepers, seven French soldiers and two Malian civilians were injured.
A foreign security source told AFP that the assault was “unprecedented” for Timbuktu.
“It’s the first time there has been an attack on this scale against Minusma in Timbuktu,” the security source said.
“We’ve never seen an attack like this,” an official from the Timbuktu governorate told AFP. “Shell fire, rockets, explosions and perhaps even suicide bombers.”
A similar attack using two car bombs with improvised U.N. markings was attempted at Gao Airport on November 29, 2016.
It is unclear who carried out Saturday’s attack.
The recent unrest in Mali began with a 2012 Tuareg separatist uprising against the state, which was exploited by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the north.
More than a dozen Timbuktu shrines built in the 15th and 16th centuries when the city was revered as a centre of Islamic learning were razed in a campaign against idolatry the jihadist groups in 2012.
France launched an intervention against the jihadists in 2013. That mission evolved into the current Operation Barkhane deployment launched in 2014 with an expanded mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel region of west Africa, and around 4,000 French troops are deployed.
The U.N.’s MINUSMA peacekeeping force has around 12,000 military and 1,900 police personnel deployed from 57 U.N. partner nations, and is considered the U.N.’s most dangerous.
More than seven U.N. peacekeepers have been killed in attacks in Mali this year alone. In the ten days prior to Saturday’s attack, one U.N. peacekeeper from Niger was shot dead in northern Mali and in a separate attack, two U.N. peacekeepers were killed and 10 wounded by mortars in the country’s northeast.
More than 160 peacekeepers have died since the Munusma deployment began in 2013.
With reporting from AFP
This post was updated on Sunday, April 15 with information from a French armed forces statement, comments from a French military spokesperson and from the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres. It was also edited for clarity.