Nine United Nations peacekeepers have been killed in Mali in the deadliest attack yet on the UN mission to the West African country, a spokesman for the mission said.

The convoy of the peacekeepers, who were from Niger, were attacked in an ambush on Friday and came under fire from heavily armed gunmen on motorbikes between the northeastern towns of Menaka and Ansongo.

"This morning, a convoy of MINUSMA peacekeepers from the Nigerien contingent was the target of a direct attack while travelling to Indelimane, in the Menaka-Asongo corridor. A provisional toll indicated nine deaths," Reuters news agency quoted a statement from the UN mission as saying.

"I am horrified by this cowardly act of terrorism. Once again, lives have been lost today in the name of peace in Mali,"
Arnauld Akodjenou, deputy head of the UN mission, said in the statement.

The UN mission, known as MINUSMA, was deployed last year to help stabilise the West African nation and to guard against al-Qaeda-linked armed groups, who have been in the country for years.

A French-led intervention last year has managed to curtail the spread of these armed fighters, but cells remain in Mali's vast desert north from where they have launched attacks on Malian and French troops, as well as UN peacekeepers.

Excluding Friday's fatalities, over 15 members of the UN mission have been killed in separate attacks since the start of this year.

The presence of international troops allowed Mali to hold elections last summer but France has since redeployed some of its forces elsewhere and there has been a spike in attacks in recent months.

Source: Agencies