Blasts and street violence continue in Mali’s largest northern city after Islamist insurgent guerrilla raids. France has responded with an air strike, according to AFP. The violence throws into question claims of stability after the city’s recapture.
A large explosion hit Gao early on Monday morning, near a city checkpoint which has also been the subject of two previous attacks over the past three days, reported AFP. A French helicopter bombed the area following the blast, said the agency, citing witnesses at the scene.
The police station, which had been the setting of Sunday's gunfire, was destroyed and body parts were left lying in the debris, according to an AFP reporter.
The broad-scale guerilla assault began on Sunday, less than 10 days after French President Francois Hollande flew out to Mali to declare the apparent success of the campaign.
Islamist troops used canoes to cross the Niger River in their armed offensive on the Malian army, a French general told Reuters. The extremists, who were headed towards the police station wielding AK-47s, were confronted by Malian soldiers wielding rocket-propelled grenades.
The ensuing gunfire prompted residents to take cover in their homes and crouch behind walls, and French military helicopters scattered bullets on the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) extremists from above.
MUJWA is considered a faction of Al-Qaeda's North African wing AQIM, which the French have been fighting against after the Islamist group seized control of northern Mali for 10 months, following the military coup of March 2012/
Fighting also broke out around the governor’s office, and machine-gun fire could be heard late into the afternoon. A precise death toll has not yet been established. However, both Reuters and AFP witnesses report two bodies, both of which may have been civilians.
This recent eruption of fighting has illustrated the insurgents’ enduring strength in the face of early successful French offensives. Despite a fairly easy fight on the ground, the French strongholds still remain highly vulnerable to insurgency and terrorist attacks.
“Despite the news reports of the French army having taken over Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, there is still a long way to go before Jihadists are ousted from the country,” journalist Gonzalo Wancha , told RT after being given exclusive access to civil defense camps.
One soldier spoke on behalf of his fellow civilian volunteers, stating clearly that they did not support the methods of the French and Malian forces, despite sharing goals.
“What they did was a really bad service to us,” he said, “Al-Qaeda has been operating on Malian territory for a number of years now. They have arms, and they keep getting more by kidnapping white people for ransom. France pays them to have its citizens returned, and then the terrorists have cash to buy weapons….there’s no way the army can fight it.”
“One thing all these paramilitary groups have in common is their patriotism and zeal to protect their country, and drive away the narco-terrorists. But this is a losing fight, given the financial resources and ammunition stock they have,” Wancha said.
The Islamist extremists had fled into the remote surrounding desert two weeks ago, following a French-led military mission which forced them to flee from their northern Mali city strongholds. Insurgents have also been successful in blending in with the general population through the removal of insignia which might identify them to adversaries.
“I believe France will stop these attacks for a while, but when the French troops leave, they’ll start all over again, because the criminals are still out there, hiding among the civilians – not all of them have been caught,” another civil defense soldier said.
The undercover MUJWA strike follows separate terrorist incidents over the weekend. Earlier on Sunday, a suicide blast in Gao killed the bomber and injured a Malian soldier, whilst on Saturday night, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a Gao checkpoint, injuring another Malian solider. The blast on Monday morning was ‘possibly’ at the same checkpoint, according to AFP.
The security post in question was also attacked on Friday by a 15-year-old boy, injuring one other in what was the first terrorist attack in the country’s history. MUJWA claimed responsibility for the incident.
On February 2, President Hollande visited Timbuktu as the Mali intervention was declared successful. He was presented with a baby camel by the government of Mali as a token of thanks. However, the recent blasts may signify the possibility of a longer and more drawn-out insurgency than previously anticipated.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Sunday that France was reaping in Mali what it had sown in Libya by arming rebels who fought against Muammar Gaddafi.
“France is fighting against those in Mali whom it had once armed in Libya against Gaddafi in violation of the embargo ordered by the UN Security Council,” Lavrov told the Sunday Night with Solovyov program.
He went on to comment on France’s ground successes, whilst underlining the challenge the country faces from such insurgents.
“France is marching across Mali with relative ease, virtually in a parade manner, occupying positions abandoned by the terrorists. It will soon liberate the whole of the state. The question is: Where are these guys no one had been able to subdue? They may turn out to be fine in the neighboring countries, where expeditionary decisions will have to be made,” he said.