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Fighting erupts in Mali

Malian soldiers backed by French fighter jets battled Islamist rebels in Timbuktu on Sunday.

File: Malian soldiers backed by French fighter jets battled Islamist rebels in Timbuktu on Sunday after insurgents used a car bomb as cover to infiltrate the town. Picture: AFP/ FREDERIC LAFARGUE

BAMAKO - Malian soldiers backed by French fighter jets battled Islamist rebels in Timbuktu on Sunday after insurgents used a car bomb as cover to infiltrate the northern desert town overnight, sources said.

The French-led offensive in Mali has pushed a mix of Islamists out of the northern towns and the remote mountain bases they had occupied but the militants have hit back with several suicide attacks.

At least three Malian soldiers were injured in Sunday's fighting in the ancient Saharan trading hub 1,000 km north of the capital Bamako, and residents were forced to take shelter indoors, Mali army Captain Modibo Naman Traore said.

"It started after a suicide car bombing around 10pm (10pm GMT), that served to distract the military and allow a group of jihadists to infiltrate the city by night," he said.

"The fighting is heavy and it is ongoing. We are in the process of encircling them," he said.

Bilal Toure, a member of Timbuktu's crisis committee set up after the town was recaptured from Islamist control in January, said he saw a French plane firing on the rebel positions.

Officials did not say how many rebels were in the town.