By Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Seven people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack by suspected Islamist militants in the remote northern Malian town of Kidal on Tuesday, the MNLA Tuareg rebel group said, in the second such attack there in less than a week.
A spokesman for the Malian army, Modibo Nama Traore, confirmed that a car bomb had exploded in the town but was unable to provide further details.
French forces have been stationed in Kidal since driving out al Qaeda-linked fighters in late January as part of a military campaign to oust Islamist militants who seized the northern two-thirds of the West African country last year.
Kidal lies in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains where diehard al Qaeda-linked fighters are battling French and Chadian forces, which are being aided by the MNLA Tuaregs.
The Tuareg group had initially allied with the Islamists to seize control of northern Mali in April, taking advantage of a military coup in the capital Bamako. However, it was quickly pushed aside by the Islamist militants and now opposes them.
The MNLA said in a statement that the suicide bomber had stopped at one of the MNLA's checkpoints on a road heading southeast from Kidal and had detonated the bomb when its fighters approached his 4x4 vehicle.
"The provisional total of this attack against an MNLA checkpoint is seven dead MNLA fighters as well as several injured," the Tuareg rebel group said in a statement.
A Malian intelligence source said three vehicles had been destroyed in the blast.
The attack came after car bombs killed two people in Kidal on Thursday and five more in the Mali-Algeria border town of In Khalil on Friday.
Both were claimed by the MUJWA, a splinter group from al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM.
SIX WEEKS INTO OFFENSIVE
France is six weeks into an offensive to clear Islamist fighters from Mali's north, which Paris said was in danger of becoming a springboard for attacks on the region and the West.
It has wrested control of all of northern Mali's towns from the Islamists but now faces a worsening guerilla-style insurgency marked by suicide attacks and hit-and-run raids on towns.
In the wake of France's lightening northward drive, the MNLA says it has retaken control of Kidal and towns around the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where Islamists are believed to be hiding near the Algerian border.
Paris has said it aims to start withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops from Mali next month, depending on the success of its operations to mop up the remaining Islamist fighters in Mali's desert-and-mountain north.
France's intervention, however, has raised the risk for its citizens throughout the region as militant groups have vowed to exact revenge on French interests.
Gunmen claiming to be from Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram posted a video on the Internet on Monday showing seven French hostages they seized last week in Cameroon.
The gunmen said France had declared war on Islam with its campaign in Mali and threatened to kill their captives unless fellow Islamists jailed by Cameroon and Nigeria were released.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Dakar and Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Editing by Michael Roddy)