An explosion shook the largest city in northern Mali early yesterday, hours after Islamist gunmen battled French and Malian troops following two straight days of suicide bombings.
Malian troops told an Agence France-Presse correspondent the blast appeared to have been in the north of Gao, possibly near the checkpoint at its northern entrance that was the target of suicide attacks on Friday and Saturday.
The latest incident came a month into the French campaign to chase Islamist fighters out of the north of the country where they had imposed a brutal form of Shariah law for 10 months.
Sunday’s attack by Islamist gunmen on territory reclaimed by French-led forces was the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault of the conflict.
It started early in the afternoon when Malian soldiers clashed with Islamists in the city center, near an empty police station that the rebels had used as their base until being driven from the city last month.
Residents ran for cover as Kalashnikov bullets and 14.5mm rounds pierced the air.
One witness said that after a fierce gunbattle, French troops had intervened. He reported seeing one body, which he thought was probably a civilian caught in the crossfire.
Rocket-propelled grenade explosions and fire from heavy machine guns and light weapons resounded late into the afternoon before dying down in the evening, when a power cut plunged the city into darkness.
French and Malian forces conducted joint patrols, warning residents that snipers could be hidden in the city, as a French Tiger attack helicopter circled overhead.
Colonel Mamadou Sanake of the Malian army said the insurgents had infiltrated the city by motorcycle and via the Niger River, which passes near the governor’s offices, where some of the fighting took place.
One security source said several dozen insurgents had been involved in Sunday’s fighting and Sanake said many of them had been killed. AFP journalists in the city were not able to verify this.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told France on Sunday that it was reaping in Mali what it had sown in Libya by arming rebels who were fighting then-Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Mali imploded after last year’s coup. The soldiers who revolted blamed the government for the army’s humiliation at the hands of north African Tuareg fighters, who have long complained of being marginalized by Bamako.
Many of those Tuareg rebels had fought alongside Qaddafi’s forces in Libya and brought back weapons from that conflict.
With the capital in disarray after the coup, al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north.
EU international development and aid ministers were due to meet in the Irish capital, Dublin, yesterday, with help for Mali high on the agenda.