French and Malian forces engage in street battles

Fri, Feb 22, 2013, 00:00

Latest fighting:French and Malian troops fought Islamists on the streets of Gao and a car bomb exploded in Kidal yesterday, as fighting showed little sign of abating weeks before France plans to start withdrawing some forces.

Reuters reporters in Gao in the country’s desert north said French and Malian forces fired at the mayor’s office with heavy machine guns after Islamists were reported to have infiltrated the town during a night of explosions and gunfire.

In Kidal, a remote far north town where the French are hunting Islamists, residents said a car bomb killed two. A French source reported no French casualties.

French troops dispatched to root out rebels with links to al-Qaeda swiftly retook northern towns last month. But they now risk being bogged down in a guerrilla conflict.

“There was an infiltration by Islamists overnight and there is shooting all over the place,” Sadou Harouna Diallo, Gao’s mayor, told Reuters.

Gao is a French hub in the Kidal region, about 300km (190 miles) northeast, where many Islamist leaders are thought to have retreated and foreign hostages may be held.

Six Malian military pickups were deployed in the square and opened fire on the mayor’s office with the heavy machine guns. Two soldiers were taken away in an ambulance.

French troops in armoured vehicles later joined the battle as it spilled out into the warren of sandy streets. Helicopters clattered overhead, while a nearby local government office and petrol station was on fire.

Paris has said it plans to start withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops from Mali next month but the rebel fightback comes as Mali’s army remains weak.

– Reuters