A Tuareg soldier in the Malian army aims his rifle at a
checkpoint along a road leading to the border with Niger in
the northern city of Gao. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay
French and Malian troops have fought running gun battles
with Islamist rebel guerrillas in the north Mali town of Gao,
in clashes that showed up big gaps in security in a zone
recently recaptured by a French-led military offensive.
Gunfire resounded through the sandy streets and mud-brick
houses of the ancient town on the Niger River, hours after
French and Malian forces reinforced a checkpoint that had
been attacked for the second time in two days by a suicide
French helicopter gunships clattered overhead.
"Islamists who have infiltrated the town are trying to attack
our positions, but we're fighting back," a Malian army
officer told Reuters by phone. Another Malian soldier said
one group of rebel infiltrators had come in on motorbikes.
Civilians crouched for cover behind walls lining narrow dusty
alleys as French and Malian troops, backed by armoured
vehicles, fired on the al Qaeda-allied insurgents who had
slipped into the area of the central market and police
A Reuters reporter saw one body crumpled over a motorcycle.
A fast-moving military intervention France launched last
month in its former Sahel colony has driven al Qaeda-allied
fighters from Mali's main northern towns, such as Gao and
Timbuktu, into the northeast Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
But with Mali's weak army unable to secure recaptured zones,
and the deployment of a larger African security force slowed
by delays and kit shortages, there are fears the Islamist
jihadists will hit back with more guerrilla raids and suicide
Abdoul Abdoulaye Sidibe, a Mali parliament deputy from Gao,
said the rebel infiltrators were from the MUJWA group which
had held the town until French forces liberated it late last
"There was a whole group of them who took up positions in
front of the police station and started firing in all
directions. But they're cornered by the troops now," he said,
speaking from Bamako and citing reports from witnesses in
MUJWA is a splinter faction of al Qaeda's North African wing
AQIM which, in loose alliance with home-grown Malian Islamist
group Ansar Dine, held Mali's main northern towns of Timbuktu
and Gao for 10 months until the French offensive drove them
The Islamists posted black banners with inscriptions from the
Koran in the occupied towns. In the Gao gunbattles on Sunday,
a Reuters TV cameraman saw a figure in black robes and a
black turban, apparently one of the rebels, running to avoid
heavy the fire from the Malian soldiers.
Late on Saturday, an army checkpoint in Gao's northern
outskirts came under attack by a group of Islamist rebels who
fired from a road and bridge that lead north through the
desert scrub by the Niger River to Bourem, 80 km (50 miles)
BEARDED SUICIDE BOMBER
"Our soldiers came under heavy gunfire from jihadists from
the bridge ... At the same time, another one flanked round
and jumped over the wall. He was able to set off his suicide
belt," Malian Captain Sidiki Diarra told reporters.
The bomber died and one Malian soldier was lightly wounded,
he added. In Friday's motorbike suicide bomber attack, a
Malian soldier was also injured.
Diarra described Saturday's bomber as a bearded Arab.
Since Gao and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Timbuktu were
retaken last month, several Malian soldiers have been killed
in landmine explosions on a main road leading north.
French and Malian officers say pockets of rebels are still in
the bush and desert between major towns and pose a threat of
hit-and-run guerrilla raids and bombings.
"We are in a dangerous zone... we can't be everywhere," a
French officer told reporters, asking not to be named.
One local resident reported seeing a group of 10 armed
Islamist fighters at Batel, just 10 km (6 miles) from Gao.
OPERATIONS IN NORTHEAST
The French, who have around 4,000 troops in Mali, are now
focusing their offensive operations several hundred
kilometres (miles) north of Gao in a hunt for the Islamist
On Friday, French special forces paratroopers seized the
airstrip and town of Tessalit, near the Algerian border.
From here, the French, aided by around 1,000 Chadian troops
in the northeast Kidal region, are expected to conduct combat
patrols into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
In this rugged, sun-blasted range of rocky gullies and caves,
the remaining Islamists are believed to have hideouts and
supply depots and are also thought to be holding at least
seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.
The U.S. and European governments back the French-led
operation as a defence against Islamist jihadists threatening
wider attacks, but rule out sending their own combat troops.
To accompany the military offensive, France and its allies
are urging Mali authorities to open a national reconciliation
dialogue that addresses the pro-autonomy grievances of
northern communities like the Tuaregs, and to hold democratic
Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore, appointed after
last year's military coup that plunged the West African state
into chaos and led to the Islamist occupation of the north,
has said he intends to hold elections by July 31.
But he faces splits within the divided Malian army, where
rival units are still at loggerheads.