By Souleymane Ag Anara
GAO, Mali (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's North African affiliate said a suicide bomb attack on a military camp in northern Mali that killed up to 60 people and wounded more than 100 others on Wednesday was punishment for groups there cooperating with France.
The attack struck at the heart of still-fragile efforts by the government and rival armed groups to work together to quell violence that has plagued the restive desert north for years.
The bombers forced their way into the camp shortly before 9 a.m. (0900 GMT), running over several people before blowing up their vehicle just as 600 soldiers were assembling, said Radhia Achouri, a spokeswoman for Mali's U.N. peacekeeping force MINUSMA.
"We will fight you. We will defeat you. You will not have the last word," President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a televised address late on Wednesday.
Mali will observe three days of national mourning.
In a statement released by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, the militant group said the attack was carried out by its close ally al Mourabitoun.
It gave the bomber's name as Abdul Hadi al-Fulani. Malian state media had earlier said there were five bombers.
"We do not permit the establishment of barracks and bases or the convening of patrols and convoys belonging to the French occupiers, to wage war against the mujahideen," the statement read.
France intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive back Islamist groups that seized the desert north a year earlier and maintains a regional operation aimed at stamping out insurgents.
Al Mourabitoun, led by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is believed to have carried out a number of high-profile attacks against military and civilian targets in Mali and other West African nations.
Together with AQIM and the Massina Liberation Front, it claimed an assault by jihadist gunmen on a Radisson hotel in the capital, Bamako, in November 2015 in which 20 people died.
State media put Wednesday's death toll at 60 and said another 115 were wounded. It was not clear if the figure for the dead included the five suicide bombers that were earlier reported to have carried out the attack.
The camp housed government soldiers and members of rival armed groups who were due to begin conducting joint patrols under a U.N.-brokered peace deal aimed at easing local tensions so that the government can focus on fighting Islamist militants.
"We are not used to this kind of violence. These are practices that are imported here to turn us away from the path of peace," Defense Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maiga said as he visited some of the wounded in hospital in Gao.
Despite the successful French-led military intervention, Islamist militants still conduct frequent attacks in northern Mali and use it as a base for operations in neighboring countries.
"The significance of this attack is that it strikes at the very heart of the Algiers peace agreement," said Sean Smith, a West Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.
French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux described the blast as a "highly symbolic attack" in an area visited only days ago by President Francois Hollande.
Gao is a dusty town of 50,000 people on the banks of the Niger river. The 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali has the highest casualty rate of any U.N. mission in the world, and a truck bomb flattened its offices in Gao in December.
(Reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Nellie Peyton in Dakar and David Lewis in Nairobi; Writing by Ed Cropley and Joe Bavier; Editing by Kevin Liffey and James Dalgleish)