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Smoke billows from an armoured vehicle in Gao after and explosion on July 1, 2018.STRINGER/Getty Images

A suicide car bomb aimed at a patrol of French soldiers has killed four civilians Sunday in Gao in northern Mali, said officials.

The suspected extremist attack is the third in three days in Mali, which is preparing for presidential elections on July 29.

“French soldiers in armoured vehicles were patrolling … when a grey-colored 4X4 car drove by them before exploding,” said Atayoub Maiga, a Gao resident who witnessed the explosion.

“I saw French helicopters coming to the scene of the attack and evacuating wounded,” he said.

According to the Malian Ministry of Homeland Security said that 31 were wounded, including eight French soldiers.

This is the third attack targeting military forces in Mali in the past three days. Two soldiers and one civilian were killed on Friday in the car bomb attack on the G5 Sahel force command post in the central town of Sevare. The al-Qaida affiliate in Mali has claimed responsibility for that attack. On Saturday at least four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a land mine in the Koro area in central Mali.

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The recent series of attacks are creating doubts about how Mali will be able to secure safe elections at the end of July.

In 2012, northern Mali was occupied by jihadist groups linked to al-Qaida before being expelled a year later by French forces. Although the extremists no longer control major cities, they are in the countryside and frequently carry out attacks.

The brazen attacks highlight the extremist threat in West Africa that made headlines in October with the killing of four U.S. service members in an ambush in neighbouring Niger.

The assaults come shortly before French President Emmanuel Macron and African leaders meet at an African Union summit on Monday in Mauritania, with the regional extremist threat on the agenda.

A number of extremist groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are active in Mali, often targeting local security forces and the world’s deadliest active U.N. peacekeeping mission. They also have staged high-profile attacks in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso, including simultaneous assaults on the French Embassy and army headquarters in Burkina Faso’s capital in March.

The 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force launched last year brings together troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania. It has received millions of dollars in backing from the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and others.

The new force joins multiple counterterror efforts in the Sahel region including France’s largest overseas military deployment, Operation Barkhane, which has 3,000 French troops in the region which are based in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.

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