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A French soldier looks out of a helicopter during a patrol in the Adrar des Ifoghas, near Tessalit in northern Mali March 23, 2013. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay(reuters_tickers)
DAKAR (Reuters) - A spokesman for the al-Mourabitoun armed Islamist group, formed by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility on Thursday for a suicide bombing this week that killed a French soldier in northern Mali.
In a video posted on the Internet, the spokesman who identified himself as Abu Assem Al-Muhajir said that the attack in the region of Al Moustarat, north of Gao, was "a response to French claims that they had annihilated the Mujahideen”.
Al-Mourabitoun was formed last year from the fusion of two Islamist groups operating in northern Mali: the Mulathameen brigade, led by the one-eyed Belmokhtar, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the claim, which came as French President Francois Hollande began a visit to West Africa that will take him to Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad.
French Defence Minister Jean Yves Le Drian was due to visit Gao on Thursday as France prepares to reorganise its 1,700 troops in Mali into a regional force to counter terrorism in the Sahara and the arid Sahel region to its south.
It was the ninth death of a French soldier since Paris intervened in its former colony in January 2013 to break the grip of armed Islamist groups on the country's remote desert, amid fears they could use the enclave to attack neighbouring countries and Western targets.
France's defence ministry said on Tuesday that seven soldiers taking part in a reconnaissance mission were injured in the attack, three of them seriously, including Foreign Legion soldier Dejvid Nikolic, who later died of his injuries.
The al-Mourabitoun spokesman said several suicide attackers had taken part in the strike on the French armoured convoy.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by David Lewis)