By Adama Diarra and John Irish
BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters) - A Sahara-based Islamist group on Saturday claimed responsibility for a rare attack in Mali's capital that killed five people, including two foreigners, highlighting continued volatility in the African nation two years after France helped retake territory from al Qaeda-linked militants.
The attack early Saturday morning on La Terrasse, a popular restaurant with expatriates in Bamako, left a French citizen, a Belgian security officer and three Malians dead and nine others wounded, a senior Malian security official told Reuters.
"There were two individuals who were armed and hooded. One burst into the La Terrasse restaurant and opened fire on people. Then he got into a vehicle in which the other was waiting," senior police officer Falaye Kanté said.
"As they fled down a neighboring street, they shot a Belgian man who was in front of his house. He's dead. Not far away they came across a police vehicle and threw a grenade, killing the driver," he said.
Mali's desert north, where French forces wrested control of territory from separatist rebels and Islamist fighters, is plagued by frequent attacks. But this is the first such attack for years in Bamako, located in the south, raising fears the capital will become targeted more often by militants.
Mauritanian news website Al-Akhbar posted an audio recording on social media of a man it said was a spokesman for al-Mourabitoun, a militant group.
It was not possible to immediately verify the recording, but the site is frequently used by Islamists operating in the Sahara and Sahel region to publish statements. "We in the al-Mourabitoun announce our responsibility for the latest operations in Bamako, which were carried out by the brave knights of the Mourabitoun to avenge the Prophet Mohammed against the infidel West, which ridiculed our prophet, and to avenge the killing of our brother Ahmed al Tilemsi," the man said in a recording that lasted one minute and 30 seconds.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta visited the restaurant, located on one of the busiest streets for night life and entertainment in Bamako, after the attack and his government pledged to bring the attackers to justice. In Paris, French President Francois Hollande's office said the French leader had spoken with Keita and that they had agreed on new "common measures" to reinforce security in Mali. The statement gave no details. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the Belgian victim was a security officer at the European Union's delegation in Bamako.
Two international experts with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) were among the wounded, according to initial reports, said Mongi Hamdi, U.N. special envoy for the peacekeeping mission to Mali (MINUSMA).
Al-Mourabitoun was formed by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is one of the primary targets of France's more than 3,000-strong counter-insurgency force in the region, where militants roam across porous borders.
Al Tilemsi was a founding member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which merged with fighters loyal to Belmokhtar to form al Mourabitoun in 2013.
The group repeatedly has said it would strike French targets.
In January 2013, France launched a U.N.-backed military intervention in its former colony to drive the militants from towns in northern Mali seized in 2012.
The militants have since mounted an insurgency targeting the Malian army and U.N. troops as the government and separatist rebels move towards a peace accord.
In the recording, al-Mourabitoun also claimed responsibility for blowing up some 25 U.N. vehicles and killing three peacekeepers.
Mali's government signed a preliminary peace proposal last Sunday meant to end fighting with northern separatists, but the Tuareg-led rebels demanded more time before agreeing to any accord.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Joshua Franklin in Zurich, Adrian Croft in Riga, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones and Paul Simao)