Mali soldiers arrest 2 men with explosives outside Gao
Malian soldiers stand by the remains of a motorcycle used by a suicide bomber at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Friday Feb. 8, 2013. (AP / Jerome Delay)
Krista Larson and Baba Ahmed, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, February 9, 2013 8:06AM EST
GAO, Mali -- Two men with explosives were arrested trying to enter the city of Gao on Saturday, the Malian military said, a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack that has fueled fears of a militant insurgency in northern Mali.
The two suspected jihadists were in Malian military custody after being arrested at 7 a.m. on a road that leads into northern Mali's largest city, said military spokesman Modibo Traore.
"The men were stopped at a checkpoint on the road from Bourem," Traore said of a village that is northwest of Gao.
While Friday's attack killed only the bomber, it has raised concerns about the future strategy of the militants, who initially appeared to put up little resistance to the French and Malian military advance.
Malian defence minister Yamoussa Camara told The Associated Press Saturday that the military was continuing to hunt extremists from their hiding places.
"We call on the population of Gao to not give in to panic and above all to co-operate with defence and security forces to drive out the terrorists who are trying to inflitrate among civilians," said Camara when reached by phone in Bamako.
The young man who blew himself up on Friday had been living at a house in Gao that was known jihadist hideout. A guard at the home said that it had been visited three months ago by the one-eyed terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who claimed responsibility for the attack in Algeria on the BP-operated natural gas plant in which more than 37 people died.
Other jihadist leaders from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa -- known as MUJAO -- also had stayed in the luxurious two-story home with a verdant courtyard, which the militants took over when they captured Gao last year, the guard said.
Fears of suicide bombing attacks have been high since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives in Gao earlier this week.
The radical fighters seized control of northern Mali in April 2012 after a military coup in the distant capital of Bamako.
France intervened in its former colony on Jan. 11 after the Islamic militants began pushing south, raising alarm that they were inching closer toward the capital.
Residents said Friday that the French forces had retaken the far northern town of Tessalit along the border with Algeria.
France has said that it wants to hand over responsibility to the Malian military and other African nations who have contributed troops.
It also has raised with the United Nations Security Council the possibility of establishing a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali.
Mali's military, though, has shown growing signs of strain. On Friday, soldiers from a unit allied with the leader of last year's military coup stormed the camp of the presidential guard.
Two people were killed and 13 others were wounded, according to a statement from the Malian government.
Malian President Dioncounda Traore called the violence a major disappointment to the Malian people "at a time when the main concern of each and every Malian should be the operations we are in the middle of carrying out in the north."
The red beret-wearing former presidential guard, based at the Djicoroni camp in Bamako, was disarmed months ago by the green beret-wearing officers loyal to Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the leader of the coup in March last year. Their camp has been attacked on several occasions by the green berets, who seized the presidential guards' weapons.
When the green berets arrived at the military camp Friday they were confronted by women and children, and fired tear gas and volleys into the air, according to Batoma Dicko, a woman who lives in the camp. The camp includes housing for military families. The attackers succeeded in entering the camp, carried out a search and set fire to the infirmaries, she said.
The Red Berets were the elite presidential guard who protected former President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in the coup by junior officers.