BAMAKO, Mali — Al Qaeda’s local chapter took responsibility for an attack on Timbuktu this weekend, as French and Malian forces Monday continued to hunt down the jihadists who infiltrated the ancient northern Malian town.
The claim of responsibility and the boldness of the attack renews fears that Al Qaeda’s local fighters are regrouping and have not been uprooted by a three-month-old French-led offensive.
A spokesman for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement on the al-Sharq website in Mauritania, saying the attack on Timbuktu was led by an Algerian suicide bomber belonging to the Yusuf bin Tashfin brigade, a platoon under the command of the late Al Qaeda emir Abou Zeid, who was killed last month by French forces.
The attack in Timbuktu began when an explosive-loaded car detonated itself at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, French and Malian military officials confirmed. But the suicide explosion appeared to have been a ruse, allowing fighters to infiltrate the city while security forces rushed to reinforce the checkpoint, said army Captain Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for Mali’s armed forces in Timbuktu.
Fighters from the Al Qaeda cell infiltrated the town, arriving on scooters and on foot, and taking positions at the swimming pool inside the centrally located Hotel Colombe, a hotel regularly used by journalists and aid workers.
‘‘A group of seven jihadists infiltrated our garden,’’ said Hotel Colombe’s manager Mahamane Toure. ‘‘The combat lasted all night,’’ he said.