French, Malian troops regain control of key northern city
Published Monday, February 11, 2013 7:27AM EST
Last Updated Monday, February 11, 2013 2:39PM EST
GAO, Mali -- Malian soldiers scoured the city of Gao on Monday for remnants of the radical Islamic fighters who invaded the town and engaged in an hours-long fight with soldiers before French and Malian forces regained control.
Sunday's brazen assault marked the first time the jihadists had penetrated the city of mud-walled buildings since they fled two weeks ago. The attack also showed the al-Qaida-linked militants' intent to fight for control of Gao, which they had ruled for nearly 10 months.
However, French President Francois Hollande said Monday his goal is that "not one space of Mali's territory be under the control of terrorists."
"The essential part of the Malian territory is today liberated, but we haven't finished our task. There are still terrorist pockets, notably in the extreme north of Mali, and operations are still being conducted by a certain number of groups," Hollande said from Paris.
Lt. Col. Salihou Maiga with the national police said Monday that at least 14 suspects had been arrested following searches in the area and would be transferred to Bamako, the capital.
At least five of them were being held inside a building that smelled of urine with a tiny barred window. The metal door was secured with two padlocks.
Inside the police station, at least eight people facing interrogation by authorities sat on the floor without handcuffs or restraints.
"People were terrorized by Sunday's attack, but all the people have returned to the city now," Maiga said. "Calm has been restored."
At least six French armoured personnel carriers patrolled the empty downtown streets where the black-robed Islamic radicals had battled for more than five hours with Malian soldiers the day before. The checkpoint to the city where suicide bombers have now twice targeted Malian soldiers also was heavily fortified.
"Our forces are right now patrolling the city to dismantle the pockets of resistance," said Daouda Sidiki Dembele, a communications officer with the Malian army in Gao.
Hundreds of Gao residents gathered around the heavily damaged police headquarters in the centre of the city early Monday where body parts lay strewn about. The al-Qaida-linked militants concentrated their attack on the police centre in northern Mali's largest city.
"Yesterday we heard the gunfire and hid in our homes all evening," said Soumayla Maiga as he stood with friends near the heavily damaged offices. "We were stunned when we came out and saw what happened."
The radical Islamic fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, had ruled Gao for nearly 10 months before they were ousted at the end of January.
The black-robed jihadists, armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, returned to the city by crossing the Niger River in wooden boats to launch their assault Sunday afternoon, said French Gen. Bernard Barrera, citing the Malian military.
By nightfall French military helicopters flew overhead to patrol the city. Two explosions rang out overnight, but early Monday the only sounds in the city were the morning call to prayer from mosques and barking dogs.
Malian Lt. Col. Nema Sagadam said it was unclear how many jihadist fighters had penetrated the city in Sunday's attack, though at least 10 were killed by Malian forces. Malian soldiers fired on the police building because the radical Islamic fighters were hiding inside, she said.
"We used heavy arms to attack the building because it was infested with militants who were firing at people," Sagadam said.
The walls and ceiling inside the police building were heavily stained with blood, and the damage was consistent with an explosion, suggesting a suicide bomber may have blown himself up inside the police offices during the fighting.
Residents who had cowered in their homes during the heavy gunfire cautiously ventured out onto the streets where groups in circles looked at the human remains.
Women used their veils to cover their noses and mouths as they passed two blown off legs lying in the sand. The remains of a disemboweled donkey also were in front of the police building.
Two civilians died from gunshot wounds, while 10 were wounded, according to Dr. Moulaye Djiteye at the Gao hospital. The body of a third man was carted away later Monday morning; residents said he had been hit by a stray bullet while riding by on his motorcycle.
Ten other people were treated for their wounds at the hospital, Djiteye said.
Islamic militants had previously clashed with Malian forces on the outskirts of town, but Sunday's attack was the first time of fighting in the city centre.
The dramatic assault highlights the challenges ahead for the Malian and French forces, who initially drove the militants out of the city after facing little resistance.
"Have we finished? No. Because there are still, in a more or less organized way, groups that can carry out attacks or guerrilla operations," Hollande said at a news conference Monday with the president of Nigeria, the country commanding the West African military mission in Mali.
While the suicide bombers have not killed anyone other than themselves, residents said at least one of them had been living in a known jihadist hideout for seven months. The house where the young man stayed also had been visited by the one-eyed Algerian terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who was the architect of last month's attack on a BP plant in Algeria in which at least 37 people were killed.
In the former jihadist stronghold of Timbuktu, meanwhile, the Malian military continued to receive tips from civilians about stores of ammunition left behind by the Islamic extremists.
On Monday, a unit led by Capt. Adama Diarra received a phone call alerting it to a stash of grenades hidden inside a carton for powdered milk. The box was found by children in a cemetery that the fighters had used as a part-time base, he said.
"The children saw the box and they were trying to open the sachets of milk when they saw something metallic poking out. Luckily they were smart enough to call their parents, who alerted us," he said. "We are continuing to find arms every day."