Eight Malian soldiers were killed, 14 others injured and four are missing following a clash with fighters in the northeast of the West African nation, the defence ministry said.
The ministry said late on Friday that columns of fighters on motorbikes had pinned down the unit, but the army, backed by the air force, killed 57 of them in the tri-border area near Burkina Faso.
The troops were targeted by “unidentified armed men” in the Archam region near the border with restive Burkina Faso and Niger, the statement said.
About 40 civilians were killed this week in this zone where rival armed groups, including ISIL (ISIS), operate, locals told AFP news agency.
The civilians were considered to be loyal to rival armed groups, according to the local sources.
Mali is at the epicentre of a Sahel-wide conflict, which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and displaced some two million people.
Rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL control swaths of territory in the porous border areas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The latest attack comes as Mali’s ruling military government asked France on Friday to withdraw troops from its territory “without delay”, calling into question Paris’s plan for a four to six-month departure and highlighting the breakdown in relations between Paris and its former colony.
Mali has struggled to regain stability since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely aligned armed groups seized the northern two-thirds of the country.
Forces from former colonial power France intervened and helped defeat the armed groups in 2013, but the fighters regrouped in the desert and began carrying out regular attacks on the army and civilians. They have since exported their methods to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger where violence has skyrocketed in recent years, leaving a grave humanitarian crisis in its wake.
France has about 4,300 troops in the Sahel region, including 2,400 in Mali. Its so-called Barkhane force is also involved in Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
A statement signed by France and its African and European allies on Thursday said that “multiple obstructions” by Mali’s ruling military government meant that the conditions were no longer in place to operate in the country.
France and 15 European countries in December condemned the Malian authorities’ decision to allow the deployment of personnel from Russia’s Wagner Group, which has reportedly started operating in the country and is accused of rights abuses in the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria.
The withdrawal decision applies to both Barkhane and the Takuba European force that France had been trying to forge along with its allies.