Mali soldiers killed in rebel ambush as peace deal due

BAMAKO (Reuters) - At least nine Malian soldiers were killed in an ambush by separatist rebels near the northern town of Timbuktu on Monday, days before a U.N.-backed peace deal was due to be signed. The ambush highlights persistent tensions and sporadic violence that risk undermining efforts to reunite and pacify Mali, three years after Tuareg-led rebels launched an independence bid that was hijacked by Islamist insurgents. Mali's defence ministry issued a statement saying an army resupply convoy had been was ambushed by rebels, leaving nine soldiers dead and 14 others wounded. A Malian military source in Timbuktu had earlier said eight soldiers had been killed with another 11 wounded, some of them seriously. A spokesman for the rebel umbrella group, the Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA), told Reuters they had killed some 20 people in the attack and had seized several vehicles. The attack took place between Timbuktu and Goundam, a town to the southwest where rebels remain active despite the presence of French and United Nations troops in the north of the country. A French military intervention in early 2013 drove al Qaeda-linked Islamists from the towns they once occupied. U.N. peacekeepers have also been deployed. But Islamists still carry out raids on local and foreign troops. Meanwhile, despite months of talks hosted by Algeria, separatist rebels have so far refused to sign a proposed peace deal that has now been rescheduled for Friday. The U.N. peacekeeping mission has said the rise in violence seen in recent weeks is endangering the peace process and it called upon rebels to pull back to previously agreed positions. "The violence must end immediately and I call on all parties to show commitment on the ground to the process that will result in a signing of a peace deal on May 15," Mongi Hamdi, head of the U.N. mission in Mali, said in a statement after Monday's attack. (Reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by David Lewis and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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