Deadly clashes between rival army units in Mali capital
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A deadly gun battle in the Malian capital between government soldiers and paratroops loyal to ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure has exposed deep divisions, as French-led forces continue to pursue Islamist rebels further north.
A gunfight erupted Friday in the Malian capital Bamako as soldiers attacked a camp of elite paratroopers loyal to ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure.
FRANCE 24 correspondent Fabien Offner reported on Friday that at least one person had been killed and many more injured in an attack which has exposed the weakness of the Malian government, an unelected body since a March 2012 military coup.
The clash also came as a suicide bomber targeted soldiers in the ‘liberated’ northern town of Gao.
Malian officials said the attack was linked to a declaration by the Army’s Chief of Defence Staff General Tahirou Dembele earlier this week, who ordered the paratroopers to the frontline in the north.
"As we have this problem in the north on our hands, you will go and fight with your brothers in arms", he said, adding he had decided to incorporate the elite soldiers within other units.
But the paratroopers refused to join their new units, or to leave their camp.
The "Red Berets" had formed part of an elite presidential guard protecting Toure, who was ousted in March last year by a group of "Green Berets" - infantry and other units.
The coup came after Mali's poor and ramshackle army was humiliated in the north by well-armed Tuareg fighters who launched an independence rebellion in January 2012.
A month after Toure was ousted, the paratroopers launched a failed counter-coup and fighting between the feuding factions left about 20 people dead.
With Bamako in disarray, the Tuaregs and their Islamist allies were able easily to seize the entire north, before the extremists in turn chased the secular Tuareg rebels away.
The Islamists' hold on the vast semi-arid zone, which sparked fears in the West that it could become a new haven for Al-Qaeda-linked radicals, prompted France to intervene a month ago to drive the extremists out.
French and Chadian troops push north
The reports from Bamako came as French and Chadian troops pushed to the Ifoghas mountain range in the far northeast of Mali, where Islamist fighters are thought to be holed up with seven French hostages.
The joint force reached the town of Aguelhok, 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of the town of Kidal, near Mali's border with Algeria.
Nearly a month after France sent in the first fighter jets and attack helicopters, it has largely driven the rebels into remote mountains in the far northeast.
The area has been the target of repeated French air strikes in the past few days, aimed at knocking out Islamist bases, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said.
On Friday, military sources reported that a Malian soldier was injured after a suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint 100km north of Gao, fuelling concern that the successes of the French-led lightning push through northern Mali that began last month could turn into a protracted guerrilla war.
One Islamist group, the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), told AFP on Thursday that it had "created a new combat zone" and was organising attacks on military convoys and placing landmines.
On Wednesday, a landmine between the northern towns of Douentza and Gao killed four civilians returning from market, a Malian military source said. A similar blast in the same area on January 31 killed two Malian soldiers.
"MUJAO is behind the explosion of two Malian army cars," the group's spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui said in a text message to AFP, who further warned civilians to stay away from main roads which he said were heavily mined.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)