BAMAKO, Mali - Al-Qaida's local chapter took responsibility for an attack on Timbuktu this weekend, as French and Malian forces Monday continued to hunt down the jihadists who infiltrated the ancient, northern Malian town.
The claim of responsibility and the boldness of the attack renews fears that al-Qaida's local fighters are regrouping and have not been uprooted by a three-month-old French-led offensive.
A spokesman for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement on the al-Sharq website in Mauritania, saying that the attack on Timbuktu was led by an Algerian suicide bomber, belonging to the Yusuf bin Tashfin brigade, a platoon under the command of the late al-Qaida emir Abou Zeid, who was killed last month by French forces.
The attack in Timbuktu began when an explosive-loaded car detonated itself at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, French and Malian military officials confirmed. But the suicide explosion appeared to have been a ruse, allowing fighters to infiltrate the city while security forces rushed to reinforce the checkpoint, said army Capt. Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for Mali's armed forces in Timbuktu.
Fighters from the al-Qaida cell infiltrated the town, arriving on scooters and on foot, and taking positions at the swimming pool inside the centrally-located Hotel Colombe, a hotel regularly used by journalists and aid workers.
"A group of seven jihadists infiltrated our garden," said Hotel Colombe's manager Mahamane Toure. "The combat lasted all night," he said, explaining that the hotel's guests, including the governor of the region and his staff were evacuated by French forces to their base on Sunday.
On Monday, combat continued until late morning, said Coulibaly. He said the fighters entered the town, taking positions at the Hotel Colombe as well as infiltrating their military camp, located nearby. By Monday afternoon, they were still scouring the town center, including the alleyways next to the 700-year-old Dinjareyber mosque, a UNESCO Wold Heritage site. He said a total of 11 jihadists had been killed since the attack started late Saturday night.
The French Defense Ministry said in a statement that Mirage and Rafalle jets flew over the city to hunt down the fighters, who attempted to flee from the northwest part of the city. One French soldier was injured during the fighting, the statement said.
Several of the fighters had explosive vests and residents saw them walking in the market and on the stretch of pavement in front of the Hotel Colombe.
For 10 months, the city of Timbuktu was under the rule of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and its shadowy emir, Abou Zeid was routinely seen there. He shopped for groceries at a convenience store directly adjacent to the Hotel Colombe, where the cashier said he regularly bought spaghetti and cans of pineapples, and set up logistics bases inside numerous administrative buildings. Abou Zeid was among the last of the jihadists to flee the city in January, when French and Malian forces surrounded the town and chased away the Islamic extremists.
The emir was killed in February in the Adrar des Ifoghas, a Mars-like landscape hundreds of miles to the north of Timbuktu.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Youssef Maamoun contributed to this report from Cairo.