Bamako: Al Qaida-linked militants said they were behind a suicide car bomb attack in northern Mali that killed two Chadian UN peacekeepers and a civilian, in another sign of escalating violence in the west African nation.

“The mujahideen have put to death the Chadian soldiers in the camp who work for France,” the leader of a splinter group linked to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Sultan Ould Bady, told AFP by telephone on Wednesday.

“Chad got what it deserved, these soldiers who carry the weapons of France will never have peace with us,” added the Malian militant who has in the past been involved in the kidnapping of European tourists in north Mali.

The ambush on a United Nations checkpoint in Tessalit follows an urgent request by the world body for more troops as its peacekeeping force faces an upsurge in rocket attacks and bombings by militants ahead of nationwide elections.

Mali’s Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga reported the Chadian military contingent suffered “two dead and six wounded, including two seriously” and one child was among the civilians killed. Chad confirmed the soldiers’ deaths.

“Jihadists attacked the positions of the Chadian army in Tessalit with heavy arms and car bombs.... The four suicide bombers were also killed,” a Malian army source said.

He added that the militants retreated in an exchange of gunfire with soldiers in Tessalit, a remote but strategically important outpost some 200 kilometres north of the rebel stronghold of Kidal.

A French-led offensive in January had driven the Islamist groups linked to Al Qaida out of the cities of northern Mali, including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, after they had occupied them in the wake of a coup in Bamako last year.

But the jihadists have taken to bases in the surrounding mountains and launched strikes on the French and peacekeeping forces. UN special representative to Mali Bert Koenders said last week that recent attacks had been “an important wake-up call” over security.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Wednesday’s attack and reaffirmed the mission.

“This attack will not deter the determination of the United Nations to support the restoration of security, stability and sustainable peace in Mali,” Ban’s spokesman said in a statement.

And late on Wednesday the UN Security Council also voiced its support for the mission in northern Mali and urged the Malian government to “swiftly investigate the attack and bring the perpetrators to justice”.

The attack was the first against troops since another militant group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) blew up a bridge south of Gao, the largest city in the north, on October 8.

In late September, a suicide bombing in Timbuktu claimed by AQIM killed two civilians and four bombers, as well as wounding seven Malian soldiers.

France has 3,000 troops in its former colony but Paris plans to draw down the force to 1,000 men by the end of January next year.

The 2,000 Chadian soldiers of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (Afisma) were at the forefront of the operation, losing at least 38 fighters in battle, with the heaviest clashes taking place in the northeastern Ifoghas mountains.

The UN peacekeeping force, expected to reach 12,600, replaced Afisma in July and on November 24 Malians will vote in the first legislative elections since the occupation.

Just hours before the attack in Tessalit, the president of West African bloc Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) had urged member states and other countries to send troops to bolster the peacekeeping mission in Mali.

“We know we have to get from 6,000 (peacekeepers) currently to 12,600 by the end of the year,” Kadre Desire Ouedraogo told a news conference in Dakar, two days ahead of a summit on the region’s economy and recent political crises.