"We deplore the death of three soldiers" in the early morning attack, the Mali government yesterday said in a statement, which added that nine of the assailants were also killed as troops responded.

A police source, as well as many local residents, blamed the attack on Islamist gunmen for the attack in the town 380 kilometres north of the capital Bamako.

"At least four jihadists were killed by the army. They wore long beards. Drugs were found in the pocket of one of the jihadists," the source added.

Some of the attackers managed to flee the scene. A local Nara official said he saw the bodies of two jihadists on the street.

"The market and the shops are closed. Everyone is scared," he added.

"Everyone hid in their homes. The attackers came out of the forest with many vehicles. They were heavily armed," an official said on local radio.

The country descended into chaos in 2012 when an insurgency by Tuareg rebels led to a coup in the capital Bamako. Jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda then overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of the north.

A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 drove the extremists out of the region's towns and cities.

But the country remains deeply divided, with the Tuareg and Arab populations of the north accusing sub-Saharan ethnic groups in the more prosperous south of marginalising them.

Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants remain active throughout the north, a vast area the size of France, but attacks outside of the region are rare.

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