In a sign that militants are still present in cities and adjoining areas that have been captured by French and Malian troops, the city of Gao has been attacked from across the Niger river by heavily armed militants.
An armed rebel group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, has claimed responsibility for an attack on the city of Gao in northern Mali and a suicide bombing the day before. They also took responsibility for a suicide bombing the day before at a checkpoint. There were two different suicide attacks at the same checkpoint but only one guard was injured in the one blast and in the other no one was seriously hurt.
The militants were armed with AK-47 weapons. The group were able to sneak into Gao to launch a surprise attack. French and Malian troops drove the militants out of Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, two weeks ago.
The conflict began about 2 in the afternoon in the commercial hub of the city and was still ongoing as night fell. Helicopters were heard overhead after the gunfire stopped. Abou Sahroui, a spokesperson for MUJAO said:: "Today God's faithful successfully attacked the Malian army, which let the enemies of Islam come to Gao. MUJAO also claims [Saturday’s] suicide bombing … that made the Malian soldiers flee. The combat will continue until victory, thanks to God's protection. The mujahedeen are in the city of Gao and will remain there."
The attack involved an ambush. A witness said that attackers hid in the city's empty central police station. When Malian soldiers arrived they were attacked. When the soldiers called in reinforcements, snipers hidden in surrounding buildings attacked them. There was fighting as well around the governor's office. Throughout the late afternoon explosions from rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine gun fire as well as light weapons fire could be heard in Gao.
A French attack helicopter circled over the neighbourhood. Both French and Malian forces sent out patrols warning residents that there were snipers hidden in the city. No casualty numbers have been released. A Malian officer said many rebels had been killed. Ever since Gao was retaken their have been clashes with jihadist forces on the outskirts.
On Saturday night a massive explosion was heard near Gao just hours after villagers had detained two youths who were preparing for suicide bombings. Perhaps the villagers detonated the explosives but there was no official explanation of the explosion. Afterwards helicopters were heard in the area.
The surprise attack in Gao shows that the many well-armed militants with combat experience, are determined and daring. The initial French-led campaign was quick and successful but it now looks as if the next stage of the battle is just beginning. The prospect for a unified Mali with a stable government looks to be in the distant future.