French special forces have killed four members of al-Qaeda in northern Mali, including one of its leaders who was suspected of involvement in the killing of several French citizens, France's defence ministry has said.

Special forces launched the raid overnight Sunday into early Monday, according to the ministry statement on Wednesday.

"Four terrorists were killed in the course of combat," among them was Amada Ag Hama, whose alias was "Abdelkrim the Tuareg" and who was a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the ministry said.

Ibrahim Ag Inawalen, known by the name "Bana" and a leader with Ansar Dine was also killed, it said.

The statement provided no details about the operation.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, later said that Abdelkrim the Toureg was implicated in at least three operations against the French, and was the lead suspect in the November 2013 killings of two journalists, Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, with Radio France International.

The Malian national was also implicated in the 2010 killing of French aid worker Michel Germaneau, and in the 2010 capture of four French people in the uranium mining town of Arlit, Niger.

"One should keep in mind that France has a long memory," Fabius said in Paris, addressing a group at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, the AFP news agency reported.

UN vehicle attacked

Tuareg rebel groups seized control of northern Mali in early 2012, but shortly afterwards, al-Qaeda-linked fighters streamed in from their base in Algeria and won control of the area with the aim of imposing Islamic law.

French forces led a military operation in January 2013 that pushed al-Qaeda members out of the cities and towns they had controlled and scattered them across a vast area of northeastern Mali.

Abou Zeid, the top al-Qaeda leader in Mali, was among scores of the group's members killed.

France withdrew its intervention force but now has about 1,200 troops in northeastern Mali as part of a five-nation counterterrorism operation.

Meanwhile, also on Wednesday, an armed man tried to set fire to a UN vehicle in front of the home of several military personnel for the UN mission in Mali in the capital Bamako, in the country's south, according to a statement from the UN.

"Before running away, the attacker shot the guard who was injured, as well as the cars in front of the house," causing property damage, it said. The guard is being treated in hospital.

Police are investigating the incident, and de-mining units from the UN mission were called to neutralise two unexploded grenades found at the site, it said.

Source: Agencies