BAMAKO: A French counter-terrorism offensive in rebel-infested northern Mali ended on Friday with 11 Islamist militants killed and a French soldier wounded, military sources inside the operation told AFP.
The action came as Paris steps up its campaign against armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda holed up in Mali's vast desert, following the former French colony's recent return to democratic government after a coup which plunged the country into chaos.
"The French military operation in the Timbuktu region is completed. Eleven terrorists were killed. A French soldier was wounded but his life is not in danger," said an official from France's Operation Serval military mission in its former colony.
A foreign source told AFP on Thursday troops were targeting the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Signatories in Blood -- an armed unit founded by fugitive jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar -- and fighters loyal to slain warlord Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.
A Malian military source confirmed the information, saying "the French have done a good job, because the jihadists, notably from Libya, are reorganising to occupy the region and dig in permanently".
The sources said military equipment and phones belonging to Islamist militants were seized by French troops.
The operation took place a few hundred kilometres (miles) north of the desert caravan town of Timbuktu, according to a Malian security source.
Algerians Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar were leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with MUJAO and other Islamist groups took advantage of a military coup in 2012 to occupy northern Mali before being driven out by French-led troops.
Anniversary of massacre
Abou Zeid was killed in fighting led by the French army in the far-northern Ifoghas mountains in late February last year, while Belmokhtar remains at large.
An African military source in MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, confirmed the operations on Thursday, while a local government source in Timbuktu told AFP "more than 100 French soldiers" had headed north from the town.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke of the operation when he was asked by a French television station on Thursday to assess military activities in Mali over the past year.
He said that "not everything is finished, the terrorist risk in this part of Africa remains high".
"We will keep 1,000 soldiers who are carrying out counter-terrorism missions," he added.
"We have operations targeting groups rebuilding on two fronts, firstly around Timbuktu and then in the Ifoghas mountains."
Belmokhtar split from AQIM last year and launched the Signatories in Blood, masterminding a raid of Algeria's In Amenas gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed in a four-day siege.
Abou Zeid was credited with having significantly expanded AQIM's field of operations to Tunisia and Niger, and for kidnapping activities across the region.
Mali has been the target of a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents since France launched its military intervention in January last year.
The residual groups of fighters are no longer able to carry out coordinated assaults, but Malian soldiers are vulnerable to small-scale attacks, by Islamist groups and also by separatist rebels from the country's Tuareg ethnic group.
Flags were flown at half mast in army barracks across Mali on Friday, according to a statement from the Ministry of Defence, in commemoration of the two-year anniversary of a mass killing by Tuareg separatists which came to be known as the Massacre of Aguelhoc.
When the northern town of Aguelhoc was taken on January 24 2012, more than 90 soldiers and civilians had their throats slit or were shot in summary executions by the separatist Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
The statement said special prayers for the dead were planned in the garrison town of Kati, 15 kilometres northeast of Bamako, as well as religious services on Sunday.