9 Peacekeepers Killed In Northern Mali

Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali

Men on motorbikes ambushed a convoy of U.N. peacekeepers in northern Mali on Friday, U.N. officials said, killing nine in the deadliest attack yet on the force.

It was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on the peacekeeping force tasked with bringing stability to the West African country following a coup and jihadist offensive, in what has become one of the bloodiest U.N. missions.

The convoy of troops from Niger included a fuel truck and may have been specifically targeted because of that, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

"Our understanding is that they were targeted and they were targeting a convoy that included a fuel truck, knowing full well that a fuel truck, I think, would cause an even greater number of casualties, which I think adds to the horrendous nature of the crime," he said.

The U.N. said in a statement that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was shocked and outraged by the attack.

"At a time when peace negotiations are underway, he insists that all parties must demonstrate good faith and commitment to a political solution and that the perpetrators of these appalling actions are brought to justice," the U.N. said.

Air support was immediately deployed to secure the area where the attack took place 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of Indelimane in the northern Gao region, the peacekeeping force said in a statement.

The attackers were carrying heavy arms, according to Olivier Salgado, a spokesman for the force, known as MINUSMA.

"This is the deadliest attack that MINUSMA has suffered since the beginning of the mission," he said. "The toll is rather serious."

Although there were initially thought to be troops wounded in the attack, a U.N. peacekeeping official said there were no injuries. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The official said the ambush raises to 30 the death toll for the peacekeeping operation, which was established by the U.N. Security Council in April 2013.

Last month, a roadside bomb killed five peacekeepers and wounded several other Chadian troops near the embattled city of Kidal. Mines killed five other peacekeepers last month.

The U.N. Security Council issued a press statement Friday warning that attacks targeting peacekeepers may be considered war crimes.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous will be traveling to Mali immediately to reiterate his support for the importance of the peacekeeping mission, and the critical importance of the political process at this time, the U.N. official said.

Northern Mali fell under control of Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but some remain active and there have been continued bursts of violence.

U.N. troops are now trying to stabilize the north, and peace talks have begun between the Malian government and Tuaregs. In late June, the force comprised of 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 international police.

But as French troops have drawn down, the situation has become "intolerable," Ladsous told reporters on Saturday.

Lederer reported from United Nations. Associated Press writer Cara Anna contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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