Explosion rocks northern Mali as battles against Islamists intensify

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A French combat helicopter bombed a police station in Mali’s northern city of Gao on Monday where Islamists and troops clashed at the weekend, witnesses told AFP.

Several witnesses said they saw a French army helicopter target the station. An AFP reporter at the scene said the building was destroyed and body parts were lying in the debris. The police station was the site of an hours-long gunbattle between Islamists and Malian soldiers on Sunday.

Malian troops told an AFP correspondent that the sound of the blast appeared to have come from the north of Gao, possibly from the checkpoint at the city’s northern entrance, the target of the suicide attacks Friday and Saturday.

Islamist insurgents launched a surprise raid in the heart of the Gao on Sunday, battling French and local troops in a blow to efforts to secure Mali’s recaptured north.

Local residents hid in their homes or crouched behind walls as the crackle of gunfire from running street battles resounded through the sandy streets and mud-brick houses of the ancient Niger River town, retaken from Islamist rebels last month by a French-led offensive.

French helicopters clattered overhead and fired on al-Qaeda-allied rebels armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades who had infiltrated the central market area and holed up in a police station, Malian and French officers said.

The fighting inside Gao was certain to raise fears that pockets of determined Islamists who have escaped the lightning four-week-old French intervention in Mali will strike back with guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings.

After driving the bulk of the insurgents from major northern towns such as Timbuktu and Gao, French forces are trying to search out their bases in the remote and rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, far up in the northeast.

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, vast areas to the rear of the French forward lines now look vulnerable to guerrilla activity.

“They infiltrated the town via the river. We think there were about 10 of them. They were identified by the population and they went into the police station,” said General Bernard Barrera, commander of French ground operations in Mali.

MUJAO, one of the al-Qaeda-linked groups that seized control of northern Mali for 10 months in the wake of a military coup in March 2012, claimed the attack and a suicide bombing Saturday, its second in two days.

A French-led force, backed by French air power, have over the last month driven the Islamist group from the cities that were once their strongholds.

But MUJAO has vowed to continue fighting French and government troops, using suicide attacks, land mines and raids such as the one on Sunday.

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