Malian troops hunted house-to-house in Gao for Islamist insurgents whose attack inside the northern town at the weekend showed the risk that French forces might become entangled in a messy guerrilla war.
Report by Reuters
Sneaking across the Niger River under the cover of darkness, the al-Qaeda-allied rebels fought Malian and French troops over the weekend in the streets of the ancient Saharan trading town, retaken from the Islamists two weeks ago.
Malian Defence minister Yamoussa Camara said three of the Islamist raiders were killed and 11 taken prisoner, while some Malian soldiers were wounded in the street fighting.
The brazenness of the rebel raid, which followed successive blasts by two suicide bombers at a northern checkpoint, was a surprise to the French-led military operation in Mali which had so far faced little real resistance from the Islamists.
“They took advantage of the two suicide attacks on Saturday and Sunday to infiltrate the town,” Camara said in Bamako. “With young people desperate over their future, it is possible to take them and indoctrinate them to the point of sacrificing their own lives.”
A doctor in Gao’s hospital, Noulaye Djiteyi, said three civilians were killed and 11 wounded. The casualties were hit by stray bullets in the gun battle.
The attack indicated that the French forces, which number 4 000 soldiers on the ground, were vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks by the jihadists to the rear of their forward lines.
French and Malian officials in Gao said the risks of infiltration, shootings and bomb blasts remained high.
French and Malian soldiers in armoured vehicles reinforced locations and sandbagged road checkpoints at the entrances to the town, alert for further attacks from bands of Islamist insurgents reported hiding in the surrounding desert scrub.
France intervened in Mali last month as Islamist forces, who hijacked a rebellion by ethnic Touareg MNLA separatists to seize control of the north in the confusion following a military coup in March 2012, pushed south towards the capital Bamako.