The suspected jihadists were arrested around 7am on a road leading to northern Mali’s largest city and were in military custody last night, said army spokesman Modibo Traore.
“The men were stopped at a checkpoint on the road from Bourem,” Traore said, referrring to a village north-west of Gao.
A suicide attack on Friday resulted only in the death of the bomber but it has raised concerns about the Islamists’ future strategy. Initially, they appeared to put up little resistance to the French and Malian military advance.
Malian defence minister Yamoussa Camara said yesterday that the military was continuing to hunt for extremists.
“We call on the population of Gao not to give into panic and, above all, to co-operate with defence and security forces to drive out the terrorists,” said Camara.
The young man who blew himself up on Friday had been living at a house in Gao suspected of being a jihadist hideout. A guard at the home said that it had been visited three months ago by the one-eyed terrorist leader Moktar Belmoktar, who claimed responsibility for the attack in Algeria on the BP-operated natural gas plant in which more than 37 people died last month.
Fears of suicide bombings have been high since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives in Gao last week.
The radical fighters seized northern Mali in April 2012 after a military coup in the capital, Bamako, almost 600 miles to the south.
France intervened in its former colony last month after the Islamists began pushing south, raising alarm that they were inching towards the capital. Residents said on Friday that French forces had retaken the far northern town of Tessalit along the border with Algeria.
France has said that it wants to hand over responsibility to the Malian military and other African nations who have contributed troops. Mali’s military, though, is far from robust.
On Friday, soldiers from a unit allied with the leader of last year’s military coup stormed the camp of the presidential guard.
Two people were killed and 13 others were wounded, according to a statement from the Malian government in Bamako.