Scott Sayare

PARIS: A small band of radical Islamist fighters battled French and Malian soldiers for hours in a firefight in Timbuktu on Sunday after infiltrating the Malian city overnight, Malian officials and witnesses said.

The fighting, which was preceded by a suicide attack at a military checkpoint Saturday night, was the first such violence to reach downtown Timbuktu since January, when French forces arrived and forced out the jihadists who had seized the city in 2012. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

“It started after a suicide car bombing” about 10 p.m. Saturday, Capt. Modibo Naman Traore of the Malian army told Reuters. That attack, he said, “served to distract the military and allow a group of jihadists to infiltrate the city by night.”

The attackers appeared to number perhaps 10 or 15, said the French military spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard, of whom “a half-dozen” were confirmed killed. One French soldier was wounded and evacuated by helicopter for medical treatment, Burkhard said. A handful of Malian soldiers were wounded, according to news media reports.

After the suicide attack, fighters arriving on foot were able to “skirt” the checkpoint, said the mayor, Ousmane Halle. By Sunday, the fighters had reached the city center, Halle said by telephone.

The fighting had ceased by about 3 p.m. Sunday, he said, though military aircraft, presumably French, continued to circle in the skies above Timbuktu. Two patrols of French fighter aircraft had been sent to Timbuktu, according to Burkhard, the military spokesman, but they did not fire any munitions.

Since jihadist fighters were driven out of Timbuktu in January, French and Malian forces have clashed regularly with Islamist fighters a few hundred miles east, in and around Gao. Timbuktu, by contrast, has largely been spared violence.

Fighters mounted a similar attack on the city 10 days ago, however, in which several Islamist fighters and a Malian soldier were killed.