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French soldiers targeted in new attack in troubled Mali

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The attack on French troops underscores the fragile security situation in Mali as it prepares to go to the polls on July 29

French soldiers on patrol in troubled northern Mali were targeted in a bombing on Sunday, the third attack in the country in as many days.

The upsurge in violence underscores the fragile security situation in the West African nation as it prepares to go to the polls on July 29.

Sunday's attack occurred as an African Union summit opened in neighbouring Mauritania, with security crises on the continent, including unrest in the vast Sahel region, high on the agenda.

On Friday, a suicide bombing hit the Mali headquarters of the five-nation force known as G5 Sahel, adding to concerns about how it can tackle the jihadist groups roaming the region.

The French military said there were no deaths among the troops whose armoured vehicle was attacked near the town of Bourem in the Gao region on Sunday, but that there were civilian casualties.

"A blast of unknown origin took place and there is a large number of civilian casualties, including children," military spokesman colonel Patrik Steiger told AFP.

"The Barkhane soldiers who were at the scene are all back at the Gao base," he said, referring to the name of the French mission in the region.

Map of Mali locating Bourem in the Gao region

There was no further information immediately available about the civilian casualties.

Gao resident Fatouma Wangara said the French patrol was deliberately targeted by a suicide car bomb.

"An armoured vehicle blocked the way and the car blew up," she said.

Another resident told AFP that the area around the ambush had been sealed off by French troops.

- 'Message sent by terrorists' -

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose country is part of the G5 and is hosting the two-day African Union summit, warned that Friday's attack on chiaki the Sahel force HQ had exposed regional security failings.

French President Emmanuel Macron is attending the African Union summit hosted by Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

He said the blast "hit the heart" of the region's security and lashed out at a lack of international help, saying the doors of the United Nations were "closed".

"It was a message sent by the terrorists at this precise moment when we are getting organised to stabilise and secure our region," Aziz told France 24 television.

"If the headquarters was attacked, it is because there are so many failings we need to fix if we want to bring stability to the Sahel."

The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, claimed Friday's bombing in a telephone call to the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar.

And on Saturday, four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in the central Mopti region.

- Funding problems -

The G5 aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from five nations -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger -- but has faced funding problems.

Security will be high on the agenda at the AU summit being attended by more than 40 African heads of state and government as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, who will meet G5 leaders to focus on progress made by the force.

G5 operates alongside France's 4,000 troops in the troubled "tri-border" area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.

African leaders will also look at a planned ceasefire in South Sudan's civil war and at the detente between Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose relations have been poisoned for decades.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who holds the presidency of the 55-nation AU, will make a call to promote free trade.

Mali votes on July 29 in a presidential election in which incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will face more than a dozen challengers.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in banned opposition protests.

Mali's unrest stems from a 2012 ethnic Tuareg separatist uprising, which was exploited by jihadists in order to take over key cities in the north.

The extremists were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.

The headquarters of the G5 Sahel force in Mali came under attack on Friday

But large stretches of the country remain out of the control of the foreign and Malian forces, which are frequent targets of attacks, despite a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.

The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.

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