A Malian soldier died in Timbuktu’s first suicide bombing as the city came under assault Wednesday night, after French President Francois Hollande vowed a military operation to drive out radicals from Mali was in its last phase. The bomb went off as a group of armed men, trying to force their way into the ancient city, exchanged fire with French and Malian soldiers who chased out the militants in late January. “A boobytrapped car exploded during the night (Wednesday) near the Timbuktu airport ... The jihadist who set off his belt was killed instantly and one of the soldiers injured in the explosion died in hospital,” said a military source on Thursday. Two other soldiers were injured in the explosion. Sources in the town reported sustained gunfire until about 3am (local and GMT) on Thursday morning. “Since last night we have been hearing gun shots in Timbuktu. There was an attempted infiltration and shooting broke out,” a local government official told AFP. “A vehicle carrying armed people tried to enter Timbuktu by force on Wednesday night and French and African soldiers retaliated,” a security source in the town said. French and Malian troops in late January freed the fabled caravan city, a mythic symbol of remoteness, from the nine-month rule of Al Qaeda-linked militants. The city has remained calm since, unlike the northeastern city of Gao, which has been hit by several suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks since the militants were driven out. Fighting in recent weeks has been concentrated in the Ifoghas mountains in the extreme northeast of the country where French and Chadian soldiers are trying to flush out the rebels. Paris has said it hopes to begin the withdrawal of some 4,000 troops in Mali from the end of April and hand over responsibility to Malian troops and an African stabilization force. The former colonial power intervened on Jan. 11 with a lightning drive to oust the militants who were advancing on the capital Bamako after having seized key towns in the vast arid north some nine months earlier. Friday will mark one year since mid-level army officers carried out a coup which paved the way for the militant takeover and led to the devastating collapse of one of West Africa’s stable democracies. On Wednesday Hollande said: “In the last phase where we are, almost the entire territory will return to Mali’s sovereignty in a few days.” His comments came as Paris scrambled to verify a claim by Al-Qaeda’s north African branch that it had executed a French hostage in retaliation for France’s military intervention in Mali.