BLACK-ROBED Islamic extremists armed with AK-47 automatic rifles penetrated the most populous city in northern Mali yesterday, engaging the Malian army in combat in a surprise attack two weeks after French and Malian troops wrested control of the town from the jihadists.
The attack in Gao shows the Islamic fighters, many of them well armed and with combat experience, are determined and daring and it foreshadows a protracted campaign by France and other nations to restore government control in the vast Saharan nation in north-west Africa.
The Islamic radicals fought the Malian army for more than two hours and were seen roaming the streets and on rooftops in around the police headquarters in the centre of Gao. Gunfire echoed across the city.
Families hid in their homes. One family handed plastic cups of water through the locked iron gate to others hiding on their patio. Piles of onions lay unattended where market women fled when the Islamists arrived.
The fighting centred near the police headquarters, where Malian soldiers with rocket propelled grenades traded fire with the combatants, believed to be from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO. The only sound was gunfire and the bleating of goats. Soldiers were positioned at every corner in the neighbourhood of mud-walled buildings.
One Malian soldier said some of the rebel infiltrators were on motorbikes.
Ever since French forces took the town, Islamists have clashed with security forces on its outskirts. This was the first time they succeeded in entering the city. On Saturday night, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a checkpoint at the entrance to Gao.
“Our soldiers came under heavy gunfire from jihadists from the bridge ... At the same time, another one flanked round and jumped over the wall. He was able to set off his suicide belt,” Malian captain Sidiki Diarra told reporters in the aftermath of the bombing.
Besides the bomber, who was blown to pieces, one Malian soldier was lightly wounded, Cpt Diarra added.
Cpt Diarra described Saturday’s bomber as a “bearded Arab”.
Soldiers had collected body parts in a wheelbarrow and the bearded head of a light-skinned man was visible among them.
A suicide bomber also blew himself up in Gao on Friday, killing only himself.
Besides Gao, French and Malian forces have also retaken the city of Timbuktu and other places, pushing the Islamic extremists back into the desert, where they pose a constant threat to Malian and allied forces. Several African nations have also contributed troops to the battle against the extremists, who imposed their harsh version of Islamic law in the north.
The armed Islamists seized the northern half of Mali in April, sending poorly disciplined and equipped Malian forces retreating in disarray. France’s military intervened in its former colony on 11 January when the Islamists, many of whom had fought for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, began encroaching on the south, threatening the capital Bamako which lies deep in southern Mali.
France has said that it wants to hand over responsibility to the Malian military and other African nations who have contributed troops and has raised with the United Nations Security Council the possibility of establishing a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali.
The French, who have around 4,000 troops backed by planes, helicopters and armoured vehicles deployed in Mali, are now focusing their offensive operations several hundred miles north of Gao in a hunt for the Islamist insurgents.