Militants killed two Chadian soldiers and a civilian in northern Mali on Wednesday, military sources told Agence France Presse, with Islamist violence escalating in the troubled west African nation.
The ambush follows an urgent request by the United Nations for more troops as its peacekeeping force faces an upsurge in rocket attacks and bombings by militants ahead of nationwide elections.
"Jihadists attacked the positions of the Chadian army in Tessalit with heavy arms and car bombs. Two Chadian troops have been killed. The four suicide bombers were also killed on the spot and a civilian also died," a Malian army source told AFP.
He added that the militants retreated in an exchange of gunfire with soldiers in the village, a remote but strategically important outpost some 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the rebel stronghold of Kidal.
An African source from the U.N. force confirmed the deaths but in the confusion following the bombing it was not immediately clear whether the soldiers and civilian were killed by the suicide bombers or heavy arms fire.
The source said an undetermined number of civilians and Chadian soldiers had been wounded and were being flown out for treatment by a French military plane.
No group has claimed responsibility for the offensive, the first against troops since al-Qaida splinter group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) blew up a bridge in Gao, the largest city in the north, on October 8.
A Malian soldier died after being wounded in an attack by the group a day earlier during which rockets rained down on the city and damaged buildings.
In late September, a suicide bombing in Timbuktu claimed by the pan-regional al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) killed two civilians and four bombers, as well as wounding seven Malian soldiers.
Islamist groups linked to al-Qaida were driven out of Gao, along with Kidal and Timbuktu, after they occupied all three towns in the wake of a coup in Bamako last year.
France keeps 3,000 troops in its former colony out of a contingent it dispatched in January but Paris plans to draw down the force to 1,000 men by the end of January next year.
The 2,000 Chadian soldiers of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) were at the forefront of the operation, losing at least 38 men in battle, with the heaviest fighting taking place in the northeastern Ifoghas mountains.
The U.N. peacekeeping force, expected to reach a strength of 12,600, replaced AFISMA in July and Malians will vote in the first legislative elections since the occupation on November 24.
Just hours before the attack in Tessalit, the president of west African bloc ECOWAS had urged member states and other countries to send troops to bolster the peacekeeping mission in Mali.
Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, speaking two days ahead of a summit in Dakar on the region's economy and recent political crises, called for a positive response to a U.N. appeal in New York last week for troop reinforcements and much-needed equipment.
"We know we have to get from 6,000 (peacekeepers) currently to 12,600 by the end of the year," he told a news conference in the Senegalese capital.
U.N. special representative to Mali Bert Koenders said last week recent attacks in the north of the country had been "an important wake-up call" over security.
Koenders told the U.N. Security Council that the international force needed helicopters and troops as it builds up to replace the French force.
"Troop generation will have to accelerate," Koenders said in a report on the work of the U.N.'s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
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