BAMAKO - Eleven soldiers were killed Monday in a "terrorist" attack on their camp in northern Mali's Timbuktu region, a government statement said, an assault claimed by Al-Qaeda's front group in the region.
Jihadist attacks have long been concentrated in Mali's north, but began spreading at the beginning of the year to the centre of the country, and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
"Unidentified gunmen attacked a security post of the Mali National Guard" early Monday morning in Gourma-Rharous, an area around 140 kilometres (90 miles) east of Timbuktu, the statement said.
"The toll is 11 guards killed, one wounded," it added, condemning it as a "cowardly and barbaric terrorist act perpetuated by lawless individuals".
A local resident told AFP that they were "holed up inside" on Monday morning during the attack.
"We began leaving our homes at 7:00 am. We were afraid." According to Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar, jihadist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the attack.
"Our... fighters attacked at dawn the Malian army base in this village and we succeeded in killing nine soldiers," AQIM spokesman Abou Darda Al-Chinguitty said by telephone, according to the agency.
They also "destroyed four vehicles and took significant loot", the spokesman added.
The Al-Akhbar agency regularly carries jihadist statements, but by Monday evening the claim had not been reported through other channels often used by militants to announce operations.
Two Malian military sources confirmed the attack but gave a toll of 10 dead. One of the sources, however, said the attackers were believed to be "jihadist elements" linked to Islamist group Ansar Dine.
'Cowardly terrorist attacks'
The attack comes days after two Malian soldiers were killed and four others wounded in an ambush in the centre of the west African country.
In a statement, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali MINUSMA condemned what it said were "cowardly terrorist attacks", referring to both incidents.
The URD, one of Mali's main opposition parties, also issued a statement condemning the violence.
Mali's north came under the control of Ansar Dine - which is Arabic for Defenders of Faith - and two other jihadist groups, AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, in April 2012. Ansar Dine has been accused of close links with Al-Qaeda.
A move south towards the capital by the extremists, who imposed a brutal version of sharia law on inhabitants, prompted Mali's former colonial master France to intervene in January 2013, pounding their positions in the north.
While their organisational structure has been smashed, small pockets of armed Islamists have managed to remain active, and continue to carry out occasional deadly attacks in the desert.
Monday's attack is Mali's second deadliest in a month, after six UN peacekeepers from Burkina Faso were killed last month in an assault claimed by AQIM.
The latest violence illustrated the difficulty in maintaining stability in the country despite a peace accord being signed in June by the country's main blocs, including Mali's Tuareg-led rebel alliance, as well as government and loyalist militias.