BAMAKO/GAO: A suspected Al-Qaeda-linked militant blew himself up near a military checkpoint Friday on the outskirts of Gao in the first suicide bombing attack since the French-led mission began, fueling fears of a looming insurgency by the jihadists who fled into the nearby desert just two weeks ago.
French and Malian forces faced little resistance in initially taking back the provincial capital of Gao nearly two weeks ago, though the discovery of industrial-strength explosives and Friday’s bombing suggest the Islamic radicals are far from defeated.
The attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of a trio of Islamist groups that had occupied northern Mali for 10 months before the French intervention.
The suicide bomber was the only one killed, said the Malian military and residents.
Meanwhile, French forces surged into the country’s far north near the border with Algeria Thursday night, retaking Tessalit.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard confirmed Friday that French and Chadian forces now control the town and airport of Tessalit after an overnight assault involving French special forces who parachuted in.
Aicha Belco Maiga, president of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, confirmed the news by telephone from her home in the capital of Bamako, saying she had been in contact with a colleague in Tessalit.
The success of Tessalit, however, was overshadowed by Friday’s attack in Gao and clashes between soldiers in the capital in Mali’s south.
The suicide bomber ignited his explosives belt just after 6 a.m. near a military checkpoint, Malian military spokesman Modibo Traore said.
Hours later, the charred and mangled remains of the bomber’s motorcycle lay strewn in a field not far from the checkpoint. Blood stained the wall on a building where three soldiers stood guard.
Malian soldiers said that nearby villagers had taken the bomber’s remains away and buried them following the attack. Residents said the bomber was known as Al-Farouk, who was described as an Arab man of about 18 who spoke French well. They said he had been living in a MUJAO hideout in Gao for seven months.
The guardian of the hideout said that the building had been visited by Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.
In Bamako, Mali’s military showed signs of growing tensions after soldiers from a unit allied with the leader of last year’s military coup in Mali stormed the camp of the presidential guard Friday morning.
At least one person was killed and five were wounded, witnesses said.
The incident underscores that Mali’s military is in poor shape to confront the well-armed Islamic extremists 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 last year’s coup. Their camp has been attacked on several occasions by the green berets who seized the weapons of presidential guard.
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.
Dr. Amadou Diallo, who works at the infirmary in the camp, known as Djicoroni Para Camp, said at least one person was killed and five were wounded.
The Red Berets were the elite presidential guard who protected former President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in the coup last March by junior officers.
Amid deep army divisions, the first group of 70 EU military instructors arrived in Bamako Friday, a French officer said.
“We are here to enable the Malian army to hold all the nation’s territory and so that Mali can have a good army at its disposal, prepared to engage,” said Colonel Bruno Heluin, the commander of the first group of what will ultimately be 500 European trainers.
Bertrand Soret of the EU in Mali said the 70 trainers, from Spain, Britain, Romania, Sweden, Finland and France were “forerunners of the mission coming to train and improve the chain of command in the Malian army.”
“Their mission is to set up the base which will house the 500 European Union instructors.”
French General Francois Lecointre, who is leading the mission, said there was “a real need to recreate the Malian army, which is in a state of advanced disrepair,” and added: “The soldiers are badly trained, badly paid and under-equipped,” lacking arms, transport equipment and communications gear.
The EU nations approved the training mission in December.