Gao - Al-Qaeda-linked rebels claimed a car bomb attack near
a camp housing French troops as Malian and foreign forces battled to secure
Mali's volatile north against Islamist fighters.
At least two civilians were wounded after a vehicle exploded
just 500m from a camp occupied by French and Chadian troops in the city of
Kidal, local officials said, in what appeared to be the first such attack in
An official in the Kidal governor's office said the vehicle,
apparently driven by a suicide bomber, was targeting the camp but exploded on
Thursday before it reached the base, killing the driver.
The al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West
Africa (Mujao), one of Mali's main Islamist groups, told AFP it had no
difficulty getting into Kidal "to blow up a vehicle as planned".
"More explosions will happen across our
territory," said Mujao spokesperson Abu Walid Sahraoui.
The spokesperson said the group had sent fighters to Gao,
where clashes with French-backed troops were taking place.
French-led forces, which launched an offensive in January,
are increasingly facing guerrilla-style tactics after their drive to oust
Islamists from the main northern centres of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu met little
A military source said battles erupted overnight Wednesday
in Gao, 1 200km from Bamako, after about 40 Islamists infiltrated the city.
The main courthouse was in flames, while Islamists briefly
occupied the courthouse and Gao's city hall but French Defence Minister
Jean-Yves Le Drian said Malian troops, backed by French forces, had repelled
Five Islamists were killed in the fighting, said Le Drian,
speaking in Brussels. "The situation has returned to normal," he
The Malian army said the Gao clashes had left at least four
Islamists dead near the courthouse, while two were captured. "On our side,
we saw five injured," Modibo Naman Traore, a spokesman for the Malian
army, said on public television.
Rebels 'determined to retake city'
Mujao spokesperson Sahraoui said the rebels were determined
to recapture the city.
"Our troops have been ordered to attack. If the enemy
is stronger, we'll pull back only to return stronger, until we liberate
Gao," he told AFP.
Gao was retaken by French and Malian forces on January 26
during an intervention to dislodge rebels who had seized control of the vast
desert north last year.
Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko said this week that
large-scale military operations in the north were winding down, but sporadic
fighting has continued. A French legionnaire was killed on Tuesday in the
mountainous Ifoghas region.
France's army spokesman Thierry Burkhard said that the
"Panthere 4" operation in the Ifoghas had already left 30 Islamists
dead since the start of the week.
Ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali, who have long sought
greater autonomy, initially backed the rebellion but later fell out with the
Islamists and had retaken control of Kidal before the arrival of French troops.
At least 1 800 Chadian troops were then deployed in the city
as part of the West African AFISMA mission, which France hopes will eventually
become a UN stabilisation force.
Asked whether it was coordinating its efforts with the main
Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, the French military said Thursday it was working
with groups that shared its interests.
In Nouakchott, the capital of neighbouring Mauritania,
dozens of Malian Arabs demonstrated to denounce abuses they said had been
committed by Malian troops against light-skinned Malians, particularly Arabs,
in the north.
The demonstrators, who spoke of arrests, torture and extra
judicial executions of Arabs, appealed to the international community to
Thousands of Malians have fled west into Mauritania since
the start of the French-led operation.
Human Rights Watch urged Bamako to act in a statement issued
Thursday from New York.
"The Malian government should urgently investigate and
prosecute soldiers responsible for torture, summary executions, and enforced
disappearances of suspected Islamist rebels and alleged collaborators," it