An Islamist suicide bomber blew himself up in northern Mali on Friday, the first such attack in the country, while rival factions of the Malian army clashed in the capital, Bamako.
The bomber rode a motorcycle up to an army checkpoint in Gao, the largest town in the north and only recently recaptured from the Islamists. He detonated an explosive belt, wounding one soldier, an officer said.
It was part of a new guerrilla campaign in response to a French-led offensive that drove the extremists from their northern strongholds into the remote northeast, where troops seized the strategic oasis town of Tessalit on Friday.
The young Tuareg, dressed as a paramilitary officer, was also carrying a larger bomb that failed to detonate.
A spokesman for The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said it had carried out the bombing.
“We claim today’s attack against the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam,” MUJAO spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui said, vowing further attacks.
MUJAO is one of a trio of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali for 10 months before France sent in fighter jets, attack helicopters and 4,000 troops to drive them out.
Despite the success of the French operation, Mali’s military remain weak and divided, a situation highlighted by a gunfight in Bamako between rival troops.
The firefight erupted after paratroopers loyal to former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure — who was ousted in a coup in March last year —fired into the air to protest an order absorbing them into other units to be sent to the frontline.
Two adolescents were killed and 13 people were wounded in the clash at the paratroopers’ camp, state media said. Interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore reprimanded the military over the incident.
The fighting overshadowed the arrival of 70 EU military trainers, the first of what is to be a 500-strong mission tasked with whipping the Malian army into shape.
French General Francois Lecointre, leading the mission, said there was “a real need to recreate the Malian army, which is in a state of advanced disrepair.”
After announcing plans to start withdrawing in March, France on Wednesday called for a UN peacekeeping force to take over, incorporating about 6,000 African troops slowly being deployed.
However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced alarm at the growing insurgency and warned it would take weeks for the Security Council to decide if it was safe enough for a UN force to move in.
Continuing their advance on Friday, French special forces parachuted into the airport at Tessalit, near the Algerian border in the far northeast, the army said.
Along with Chadian troops, they sought to flush the Islamists out of hiding in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where they are believed to have fled with seven French hostages.