French troops are locked in a major offensive against Al Qaida in northern Mali, military sources have told RFI. Nineteen jihadi fighters were killed in a clash north of Timbuktu at the weekend, they say.
The offensive against Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) was launched last week in a huge area between the communes of Bouje-Baya and Arouane, 150-250 kilometres.
north of Timbuktu on the way to the salt-mining centre of Taoudeni, "a region where there"s a lot to do, where there are a lot of jihadi movements", according to local security sources.
About 100 military vehicles and helicopters have been deployed.
Residents of Timbuktu confirm having seen columns of French armoured vehicles at the end of last week.
An Aqim unit was attacked at the weekend, reports say.
"The elements of the terrorist group fought to the death," a Malian military source told RFI. "At least 19 elements were killed, there were no dead or wounded on the French side."
It has not yet been established which group the unit belonged to.
The French army has so far refused to comment, indicating that the operation is still going on.
The clashes come as France, whose presence in Mali is supposed to be temporary, starts an intervention in the Central African Republic.