BAMAKO Four United Nations peacekeepers were killed and others wounded in a suicide attack on their base in the town of Aguelhoc in Mali's restless desert north on Wednesday, the country's U.N. mission said.
The blast came as the U.N. and Mali's international partners scrambled to salvage a foundering northern peace process following a spate of renewed clashes between government forces and Tuareg rebels last month.
The mission, known as MINUSMA, said a car packed with explosives was driven up to the entrance of the camp, which also houses Malian soldiers, and detonated there.
The head of MINUSMA Albert Koenders called the attack "cowardly and odious".
Mali was thrown into chaos in 2012 when al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters taking advantage of a military coup in the capital Bamako hijacked a Tuareg separatist rebellion to seize the West African nation's desert north.
France, which said the enclave posed a threat to western security, led a military intervention last year that scattered the Islamists. However many see violence like Wednesday's attack as highlighting what they see as a lingering Islamist menace alongside Tuareg rebellion.
In addition to the killed U.N. soldiers, all of them from Chad, another six peacekeepers and four Malian soldiers were injured and were in the process of being evacuated from the town late on Wednesday, a statement from the mission said.
A Malian army officer said operations had been launched after the blast to secure Aguelhoc.
"I am shocked that brave soldiers of peace were once again targeted. This attack will not divert MINUSMA from its mission to reestablish peace and security in Mali," Koenders said.
Peacekeepers have been among those targeted in the sporadic violence, including attacks on vehicles with improvised explosive devices, that has continued in the north despite the deployment of French soldiers and U.N. forces.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, and the U.N. mission did not say who it believed was behind the blast.
The French intervention allowed the Tuareg separatists to retain control of parts of their stronghold of Kidal, a town southeast of Aguelhoc, pending peace talks after they pledged to break ties with their erstwhile Islamist allies.
But negotiations have largely stalled due to foot dragging by the government. And analysts and diplomats meanwhile say the lines between the northern separatists and Islamist groups remain blurred.
In an interview with Reuters this week, Mali's Prime Minister Moussa Mara said the international community was underestimating the threat posed by Islamist fighters sheltering in areas controlled by Tuareg rebels.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Ralph Boulton)