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DAKAR (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in Mali has claimed responsibility for an attack on French troops in the northern town of Gao, the U.S. SITE monitoring group said on Monday.

Four civilians were killed and four French soldiers were wounded in Sunday's raid.

The Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen group said the attack was a message to French President Emmanuel Macron ahead of his visit to Mauritania on Monday, SITE said, citing a journalist who frequently receives direct news of claims.

Macron said on arrival in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on Monday that several French soldiers who were wounded in Gao were being airlifted to France.

He said he would meet on the sidelines of an African Union summit with the presidents of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania, members of the G5 Sahel regional force created to combat Islamist militancy.

"We'll meet this afternoon to take concrete decisions on the redeployment of our forces," Macron said.

Western powers, including France and the United States, have provided funding to the G5 to tackle the jihadists. But the force has been slow to get off the ground, hobbled by delays in disbursing the money and coordinating among the five countries.

Violence by Islamist militants has proliferated in the sparsely-populated Sahel in recent years, with groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State using central and northern Mali as a launchpad for attacks across the region.

Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen has claimed responsibility for three deadly attacks in Mali since Friday as the country prepares for a presidential election on July 29.

Including the attack on French forces on Sunday, SITE said the group had claimed responsibly for the attack on the G5 taskforce headquarters in Sevare on Friday, and an attack on Malian troops on Saturday that killed five.

(Reporting By Edward McAllister and Bate Felix; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Reuters