BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian troops backed by U.N. helicopters stormed a U.N. police base in the city of Timbuktu and recaptured it from suspected Islamist militants who had seized it hours before on Friday, the United Nations said.
Malian Defence Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly told reporters that an army commander was killed in the rescue operation as well as three of the attackers, whom he called terrorists but did not identify. A fourth assailant blew himself up while others were being sought, he added.
The incident followed a series of bold attacks by al Qaeda militants in West Africa, including a hotel siege in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou last month in which 30 people including many foreigners were killed.
A group of around six militants drove up to the U.N. base in the former Hotel Palmeraie at the entrance to Timbuktu at dawn and detonated a car bomb before holing up inside, security sources said. A gunbattle ensued.
"It's over now," said U.N. mission spokesman Olivier Salgado. "They are now inspecting the site and looking for explosive devices." The former hotel had been taken over exclusively by a Nigerian U.N. police contingent.
In an apparent lucky break for the United Nations, Salgado said the premises were empty at the time of the attack, barring a few guards, as the contingent was in the process of moving out. A military source at the site said Nigerian policemen at the site had managed to flee and were never taken hostage.
Islamist militants briefly held Timbuktu, an ancient trade and cultural hub, in 2012 and other northern towns until French forces drove them out a year later. But the militants have stepped up attacks in Mali in recent months as part of a growing regional insurgency.
During the invasion, Timbuktu's famous mausoleums were destroyed by Islamist jihadists and restoration work was only officially completed at the UNESCO site this week.
However, residents have in recent weeks voiced concern that militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb known to operate in remote areas near Timbuktu are infiltrating the city.
In a sign of the dangers, a Swiss missionary living in the city was kidnapped last month.
"This city is infested with terrorist collaborators," a street vendor who declined to be named told a visiting Reuters reporter in late January.
Malian forces launched "Operation Martine" last month to secure the area around Timbuktu, including two forests thought to be used as militant hideouts.
Additional reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara in Niamey; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich