French forces seize Malian town as killings in south raise fresh fears


French forces hunting Islamist rebels in northern Mali parachuted into a strategic town and took control yesterday, but a suicide bombing further south and the killing of two civilians by soldiers in the capital Bamako raised fresh security fears.

In their hot pursuit of al-Qaeda-allied militants in Mali’s remote Saharan northeast, French special forces seized the town and airfield of Tessalit, about 50km (30 miles) from the Algerian border.

It was the northernmost town secured so far by French and Chadian troops in their drive to flush retreating jihadist insurgents out of their hideouts in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where they are believed to hold French hostages.

In a four-week lightning military intervention launched by Paris on January 11th, some 4,000 French troops backed by warplanes and helicopters have driven Islamist rebels out of the main urban centres of northern Mali into the mountains and desert.

But the speed of the offensive has opened up a potential security vacuum behind the fast-moving French forces, where liberated towns and areas are meant to be secured by the Malian army and a larger African force that is still deploying.

In an ominous sign of vulnerability, Mali’s first reported suicide bombing since the arrival of French forces left a Malian soldier injured yesterday on the outskirts of Gao, recently retaken by French and Malian troops from the Islamists.

The attack followed the expulsion by French-led forces of Islamist rebels from their desert strongholds. Since the recapture of Gao, at least two landmine explosions have killed several Malian soldiers. – (Reuters)