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Fears of Islamist militants hiding in Malian town

WHEN IN GAO: A Malian soldier on patrol in the northern town

HOUSE-TO-HOUSE SEARCHES are being conducted by Malian troops in the northern town of Gao after fire fights against Islamist militants over the weekend.

There have been reports that some militants are seeking refuge among the local population.

On Sunday (February 10), Islamist fighters launched an ambush on government soldiers; the surprise attack came two weeks after Malian troops and French forces drove militants from Gao in a joint offensive.

However, using wooden boats to cross the Niger River, militants re-entered the town and used the former headquarters of the Islamic police as their base of operations.

During Sunday’s skirmishes, lasting approximately four hours, militants were suspected of employing suicide bombers to breach the positions of the Malian army, and there were sightings of fighters riding motorcycles with explosives through the town.

After Malian troops were subjected to heavier fire, including RPGs, French command deployed armoured units to counter the attack – an assault helicopter was also used to support the local soldiers.

French authorities claim under 20 extremist fighters had participated in the clashes, but they could not confirm whether any were killed.

The group claiming responsibility for the weekend’s attack said it would continue its campaign of violence. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa’s spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui said: “We are dedicating ourselves to carrying out more attacks against France and its allies.”

On January 11, 4,000 French forces arrived in northern Mali in order to support the country’s national army drive out the militants from towns they had seized, which had given them control over more than half the nation’s territory.

Since France’s troops landed, nine towns have been retaken by Malian and French joint operations. The weekend’s attacks in Gao have been some of the fiercest resistance French soldiers have faced.

TERRITORY: Islamist rebels had held the northern part of the country since April 2012

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