French air strikes rock Gao in wake of street battles
Issued on: Modified:
French air forces bombed a police station and other targets in the Malian city of Gao on Monday following street battles between Islamists and French and Malian troops. Islamists claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in Gao in recent days.
French air forces bombed a police station and other targets in Mali's largest northern city of Gao early on Monday, in the wake of protracted street fighting a day earlier between Islamist gunmen and French and Malian troops.
“I heard two explosions around 1:30am,” said FRANCE 24 correspondent Willy Bracciano, reporting from Gao. Military sources said that they were bombing "to clear the combat zone” after clashes erupted near the Bouren checkpoint, some 2 kilometres from the centre of the city. “This will allow the army to keep watch for any Islamist fighters seeking to enter the city,” Bracciano said.
Soldiers later evacuated the city's main market, which is near the police station.
"We fear an attack, that is why we are evacuating the Gao market for security reasons," said a high-ranking officer.
Sunday's street battles, on territory that had been reclaimed by French-led forces, was the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault of the conflict. The fighting started in the early afternoon when Malian soldiers clashed with Islamists in the centre of Gao near the now-empty police station, which Islamists had had been using as a base until being driven from the city by a French-led offensive in late January.
Colonel Mamadou Sanake of the Malian army said the rebels had re-entered the city by motorcycle and via the Niger River to stage Sunday’s attack.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the al Qaeda-linked groups that seized control of northern Mali in the wake of a March 2012 military coup, claimed responsibility for two straight days of suicide bombings on Friday and Saturday, the first such attacks of their kind in the city.
A French-led force, backed by air power, launched an offensive on January 11 aimed at driving the Islamists from the northern cities that they had held since last spring.
US President Barack Obama on Monday put the price of US logistical support for France and Chad in the campaign against insurgents in Mali at up to $50 million.
Washington has been providing airlift and air refueling services to France and lifting Chadian troops in transport planes in the month-long operation.
In a message to the Pentagon, Obama directed that the money be used to finance "efforts to secure Mali from terrorists and violent extremists."
A White House official said that France would continue to pay the United States for fuel that it provides for French aircraft in the operation. Washington has not made a direct military intervention in the conflict.
The latest violence underlined the threat of a drawn-out insurgency as France tries to map a strategy to exit its former colony.
France is anxious to hand over its military operation to African-led UN peacekeepers, and last week announced it would begin bringing its troops home in March.
President Francois Hollande said Monday the intervention had been a success.
"The greater part of Malian territory has been freed, no town is occupied by a terrorist group and no networks or groups who had up til now threatened the lives of Malians are capable of launching a real offensive," Hollande said.
"We are therefore no longer pursuing the liberation of territory but securing it."
At a joint press conference, his Nigerian counterpart Goodluck Jonathan warned that west African troops slowly being deployed in Mali would likely have to stay there "for some time".
"The rebels will come back as terrorists using guerrilla tactics," he said.
"It's not going to be an overnight operation."
‘Reaping what it had sown’?
The Malian soldiers who staged the March 21, 2012 coup blamed the government for the army's humiliation at the hands of North African ethnic Tuareg fighters, who have long complained of being marginalised by Bamako. Many of those Tuareg rebels had fought alongside Gaddafi's forces in Libya and brought back weapons from that conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told France on Sunday that it was reaping in Mali what it had sown in Libya by arming the rebels who successfully overthrew former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
With the nation in disarray after the ouster of Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, al Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and seized control of the north, instilling Sharia law and destroying many of Timbuktu’s historical monuments for religious reasons.
European Union international development and aid ministers are due to meet in the Irish capital Dublin later on Monday, with the prospects for helping Mali expected to be high on the agenda.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)