Timbuktu, Mali (AFP) July 10, 2009
Dozens of Malian troops left Timbuktu on Friday to hunt militants from Al-Qaeda's North Africa branch after recent deadly clashes and a British hostage's execution, a military source said.
The deployment also follows Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure's announcement of "a total struggle" against the Al-Qaeda affiliate, a group that has raised concerns among Western nations after claiming a series of attacks.
A convoy of soldiers left the northwestern city amid applause and cheers from residents.
"Our troops are going into the big desert for military operations -- meaning to track arms and drugs traffickers, but also Al-Qaeda elements," a local military official said on condition of anonymity.
A military source said some of the soldiers had been trained by US instructors as part of a Washington-financed programme.
According to the army, dozens of people were killed on July 4 in the country's northwest in the deadliest clashes yet reported between Mali soldiers and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb militants.
The Al-Qaeda arm claimed in an Internet statement that it killed 28 Malian soldiers on July 4, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamist websites.
But Mali's army dismissed the claim as propaganda, saying that there were "dozens of dead on either side," but Al-Qaeda had lost the most men.
The Al-Qaeda branch announced in late May that it had executed Briton Edwin Dyer, one of six Western hostages kidnapped in the Sahel region in December and January.
The execution marked the first time that Al-Qaeda's north African branch had killed a Western hostage, observers said.
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