The suicide bomber exploded his vehicle Tuesday evening at a checkpoint at an entrance to Kidal, said Ag Alghabas Intalla, a leader of the Islamic Movement of Azawad, or MIA, reached by phone in Kidal. He said he counted six dead and others wounded. The MIA group is fighting with the Malian army and French troops against Islamic extremists.
Responsibility for the suicide attack has not been claimed, but it is suspected to be the work of the Islamic extremists of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO.
French troops are involved in "very violent fighting" in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains of northeastern Mali, said France's defense minister Tuesday. Jean-Yves Le Drian said that it's too early to talk about a quick French pullout from Mali, despite the growing cost of the intervention.
The French intervention in Mali has cost more than 100 million ($133 million) since it started Jan. 11, said Le Drian on France's RTL radio.
"We are now at the heart of the conflict," in protracted fighting against Islamic extremist rebels in the Ifoghas mountains, Le Drian said.
While some expected the 4,000-strong French force to pull out next month, Le Drian said he couldn't talk about a quick withdrawal while the mountain fighting goes on. A clash in the area killed 23 soldiers from neighboring Chad last week, according to French President Francois Hollande, who expressed condolences to his Chadian counterpart.
Soldiers from Chad and a few other African countries have joined the French-led operation to help Mali's weak military push back the Islamic extremists who had imposed harsh rule on northern Mali and started moving southward toward the capital, Bamako, last month.
Ag Ghali's armed extremists conquered much of northern Mali after a military coup in Mali's capital, aided by al-Qaida's North Africa wing. In Timbuktu, they imposed strict Shariah law and forced thousands to flee; others were tortured and executed. But the French-led intervention in January brought the Islamic radicals to quit the northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal and retreat to mountainous hideouts near the Algeria border.
In the first weeks of the campaign, French and Malian forces easily took back cities in northern Mali. But the fighting is rougher now that it has reached more remote terrain in the mountains of the southern Sahara.
At the United Nations in New York, a top U.N. humanitarian official said Tuesday that as security improves in Mali, the world must seize the moment to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid.
John Ging, a senior humanitarian affairs official who just visited Mali, said that country's northern region is stabilizing but needs help re-opening schools, markets and health clinics. The U.N. is appealing for $373 million in aid, but has only received $17 million.
Even before fighting erupted last year among government forces, Taureg rebels and radical Islamists, Ging said Mali was suffering from the severe food crisis that has hit Africa's arid Sahel region.
Ging said more than 430,000 Malians have been displaced.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on an Islamic rebel leader whose extremist group seized much of northern Mali last year and prompted the French military intervention. The United States State Department designated Iyad Ag Ghali, head of the Islamic group Ansar Dine, a global terrorist. The action blocks any assets he holds in the U.S. and prohibits Americans from doing business with him.
The United Nations also added Ag Ghali to its global sanctions list.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington and Ron DePasquale from the United Nations in New York.