Islamists attack Mali troops in Gao
GAO: An explosion shook the largest city in northern Mali early on Monday, hours after Islamist gunmen battled French and Malian troops and following two suicide bombings in two days.
Malian troops said the blast appeared to have been in the north of Gao, possibly near the checkpoint at the city's northern entrance that was the target of the suicide bombings on Friday and Saturday.
Islamist gunmen attacked Gao on Sunday, intensifying their insurgency on territory reclaimed by French-led forces.
Taking cover … a French soldier peers around a corner during gun battles with insurgents in Gao. Photo: AP
In the first large-scale urban assault of the conflict, rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (known by its French initials MUJAO) attacked Malian troops in central Gao, sending residents running for cover. Gunfire resounded late into Sunday afternoon before dying down in the evening, when a power cut plunged the city into darkness.
A French attack helicopter circled over the governor's offices and the central police station, the focal points of the attack. French and Malian forces conducted joint patrols, warning residents snipers could be hidden in the city.
''Many Islamists were killed,'' Malian army Colonel Mamadou Sanake said.
Shell shock ... Malian people mill through the heavily shelled police station in Gao. French and Malian government forces have regained control of this northern city, after Islamic fighters fought a prolonged battle. Photo: AP
MUJAO, one of the al-Qaeda-linked groups that seized control of northern Mali for 10 months after a military coup in March last year, claimed the attack and a suicide bombing on Saturday, its second in two days.
''Today God's faithful successfully attacked the Malian army, which let the enemies of Islam come to Gao,'' said MUJAO spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui.
A witness said the gunmen had hidden in the empty police station, then attacked Malian soldiers when they arrived.
Islamist insurgents launched a surprise raid in the heart of the town on Sunday. Photo: AP
When reinforcements came, snipers hidden in surrounding buildings opened fire on them, the witness said.
A security source said there had been ''several dozen'' attackers.