Bamako (AFP) - Suspected Islamists killed at least nine United Nations peacekeepers from Niger on Friday in northeastern Mali, in the deadliest ever attack on the mission, military sources said.
MINUSMA did not immediately hold any armed group responsible, but a Nigerien officer from the mission told AFP the attack had been carried out by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an al-Qaeda-linked militia behind numerous attacks in recent years.
"This morning, a convoy of MINUSMA peacekeepers from the Nigerien contingent was the target of a direct attack while travelling to Indelimane, in the Menaka-Asongo corridor. A provisional toll indicated nine deaths," a statement from the UN mission said.
"This is to date the deadliest attack against the UN mission in Mali," the statement said, adding that aircraft had been deployed to secure the area.
Arnauld Akodjenou, the deputy head of the mission, said he was "horrified" by the "cowardly" attack.
"Once again, lives have now been lost in the name of peace in Mali. These crimes must not go unpunished," he said in the statement.
"This violence must stop immediately and MINUSMA again challenges all those involved in finding solutions for sustainable peace to take responsibility for a rapid resolution of the crisis that has lasted too long."
The Nigerien MINUSMA source said MUJAO had formed an alliance with militants from the Fulani ethnic group in the Gao region where the attack took place.
"The terrorists had threatened to carry out attacks, attacks in the run-up to the feast of Tabaski. They've just carried them out," added a Malian military source, using the west African name for the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha taking place on Sunday.
- Rocket attack -
Menaka, an isolated Sahara desert town in eastern Mali crisscrossed by seasonally dry riverbeds, is used mainly as a temporary home by nomadic Tuareg tribes.
It was the scene of heavy fighting between the Mali government and the three main separatist rebel groups in May.
The region of Gao is part of a large swathe of desert which is the cradle of a Tuareg separatist movement that wants independence for the homeland it calls "Azawad" and which has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.
Around 50 Malian solders were killed around Menaka and the flashpoint town of Kidal further north by Tuareg and Arab insurgents in May.
Ten UN peacekeepers -- all from Chad -- have been killed by roadside bombs in the Kidal region in recent weeks, prompting the government in N'Djamena to complain to the UN that the Chadian contingent of MINUSMA were suffering discrimination.
MUJAO claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on a MINUSMA base close to the border with Algeria in August.
The group joined forces with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine in 2012 to take control of much of the desert north, including the three main towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
They seized power on the back of an uprising by ethnic Tuareg separatists and imposed strict Sharia law and punishments for 10 months, before being ousted from the towns and forced back into desert hideouts by a French military intervention launched in January 2013.
Though order has largely been restored across the territory, Islamist extremists continue to carry out raids and attacks and French troops are still on patrol.
They are blamed for a suicide attack on August 16 that killed two soldiers from Burkina Faso serving with MINUSMA in the settlement of Ber, near Timbuktu.