Chad suffered the heaviest losses so far in the French-led campaign to drive Islamists from northern Mali, after a battle in which it said 13 Chadian soldiers and 65 Islamist rebels were killed.
News of the battle came after two suicide car bombers targeted ethnic Tuareg forces in the northern town of Tessalit, killing three people.
Meanwhile, a US official confirmed that Washington had deployed several Predator drones to Niger to fly surveillance missions in support of French forces in Mali.
The clash between Chadian forces and the Islamists took place on Friday in the mountainous Ifoghas region of northern Mali, Chad’s military command announced.
“The Chadian army destroyed five vehicles and killed 65 jihadists,” it said in a statement.
Thirteen of its soldiers had been killed and another five wounded, it added.
Earlier this month Chad deployed 1,800 soldiers in the northern city of Kidal to secure what had been the rebels’ last urban stronghold, putting itself in the frontline in the fight against the Islamists.
A car bomb attack on Thursday there near a military camp for French and Chadian troops had wounded two civilians.
North of Kidal lie the Ifoghas highlands — to where many of the Islamist forces have withdrawn — and the town of Tessalit.
Two vehicles targeting civilians and members of the ethnic Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), exploded near the town on Friday, killing three and wounding several others, a security source said.
Meanwhile, a US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that drones were flying out of Niamey, Niger, from a base with a 100-strong contingent of air force personnel.
US President Barack Obama had announced earlier on Friday that US troops had been sent there to provide intelligence for the French forces and “other partners” in the region.
France sent in troops on Jan. 11 to help the Malian army oust Islamist militants who last year captured the desert north of the country. Since then, thousands of soldiers from African countries have also deployed and France plans to start withdrawing its troops next month.
The French-led forces met little resistance during the initial offensive that drove the Islamists from the main northern centers of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
However, now they are facing a fierce guerrilla campaign that includes sudden raids, suicide attacks and landmines.
The Tuareg MNLA blamed Friday’s car bomb attacks on the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of Mali’s main Islamist groups.
The MUJAO made no comment on the latest attacks, but on Thursday it said it was responsible for the car bomb in Kidal. MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui warned of more such attacks.
Sahraoui also said they had sent fighters to another northern town, Gao, 1,200km from the capital, Bamako, and that they were determined to recapture it.
Battles with French-backed troops erupted overnight on Wednesday after about 40 Islamists infiltrated the city and there were fresh clashes on Friday.
Malian soldiers opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades on the city hall, killing at least one Islamist, according to Malian army colonel Mamadou Samake.
They found the bodies of four rebels inside, he added.
A Malian soldier earlier said many of the Islamists killed in the urban clashes wore explosives belts, adding that mines had been laid in the area and French mine clearers had been called in to make the area safe.
The French military reported on Friday that between 15 and 20 Islamists had died in the street clashes. Two French troops were slightly injured, while four Malian soldiers were also thought to have been wounded.
The UN said on Friday that it had “heard horrifying reports from the north of human rights violations, recruitment of children and rising sexual violence.”