BAMAKO, Mali – Timbuktu has been hit by a prolonged battle between Islamic extremists and the Malian and French armies, residents and a Malian military spokesman said Sunday.
Fighters linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, attacked the city in northern Mali late Saturday night and have continued fighting Sunday, said Capt. Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu.
The attack started Saturday night at about 10 p.m. 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 Coulibaly.
"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," said a Malian soldier at an entrance to the city, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
The French military joined the Malian army Sunday to fight the Islamic radicals, said Timbuktu residents.
As of Sunday afternoon, shooting could still be heard in the city, said resident Age Djitteye. He said that 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."
Djitteye said a suicide bomber blew himself up on one of the only 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 evacuated to the French army base, 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, 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 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 the city of Timbuktu since it was liberated by French forces on Jan. 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, as happened Sunday.
In a separate incident, a Malian army vehicle drove over a land mine during a patrol Saturday around 110 kilometers (70 miles) from the northern Malian town of Ansongo, killing two people on board, said the Malian military.
The attacks come as French President Francois Hollande said on French television Saturday that French forces had attained their objectives in Mali, a country which until January had lost its northern half to an al-Qaida cell and their allies. When the extremists began advancing southward in early 2013, Hollande unilaterally authorized a military intervention which quickly pushed the Islamic extremists from the main cities in Mali's north. Outside the heavily fortified cities like Timbuktu, however, the jihadists are still present, leading an insurgency marked by suicide bombings, land mines and attacks on the cities.
For 10 months until this January, Timbuktu as well as much of the rest of northern Mali was ruled by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as two other jihadist groups allied with the terror network.