A late night attack on Thursday killed nine soldiers near the central Malian town of Bandiagara, in an area where armed groups are rampant, a military official has said.
Nine Malian soldiers were also wounded, five of them seriously, the military said.
The military also engaged in a long exchange of fire with a large number of fighters.
Mali has been plagued by a brutal conflict that began as a separatist movement in the north but devolved into a multitude of armed groups jockeying for control in the country’s central and northern regions.
The insecurity has spread across the arid scrublands of the Sahel, into Burkina Faso and Niger, with groups exploiting the poverty of marginalised communities and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups.
Attacks grew fivefold between 2016 and 2020, with 4,000 people killed in the three countries last year, up from about 770 in 2016, according to the United Nations.
Rebel attacks in central Mali typically involve roadside bombs or hit-and-run raids on motorbikes or pickups.
The region has seen a string of deadly attacks since the start of the year, including a roadside bomb that killed four United Nations peacekeepers from the Ivory Coast.
French and Malian troops have also carried out a joint mission in the area, called Operation Eclipse. According to a Malian army statement on January 26, “100 terrorists were neutralised” in the operation.
The deteriorating security situation has created an enormous humanitarian crisis across the Sahel, destroying fragile agricultural economies and hobbling aid efforts.