Islamist insurgents have attacked the Malian town of Nampala near the Mauritanian border, killing at least five people in a dawn raid.
Witnesses said the militants opened fire on soldiers after arriving in pick-up trucks. Other reports said they came on motorbikes and on foot.
One report said Malian soldiers fled the attack; another said troops fought back and clashes lasted several hours.
The militants have been fighting the Malian army for a number of years.
The latest phase of the insurgency began after a French-led military intervention in January 2013, aimed at driving out Islamist militants from towns they had seized in northern Mali and declared to be an “Islamic state”.
The French military action dispersed but did not destroy the extremists and sporadic attacks have continued.
Nampala is about 550 kilometres (340 miles) north-east of the Malian capital, Bamako.
A defence ministry spokesman said the army had sent reinforcements to Nampala, following the latest attack.
There were conflicting reports on whether the militants had subsequently been expelled or were still present in the town.
The mayor of the neighbouring district of Diabaly, Oumar Diakite, said seven soldiers had been killed.
A military source at the United Nations mission in Mali put the number of deaths at five.
He said the identity of those killed had not been confirmed but “they were all wearing military fatigues”.
The attack came less than a month after Mali confirmed it had freed four Islamist militants in exchange for the release of a French hostage, Serge Lazarevic.
Mr Lazarevic was seized by armed men in Mali in 2011 and had been the last French hostage in the region being held by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Those released in the prisoner exchange included two Malian members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who allegedly took part in Mr Lazarevic’s abduction.
The other two militants released were believed to be a Tunisian and a man from Western Sahara.