Mali conflict: 'First suicide bombing' in Gao

BBC's Thomas Fessy: "This is a city on the edge...the people here wonder what is to happen next"

A suicide bomber has blown himself up in the northern Mali town of Gao - the first since French-led troops began their assault on Islamist militants.

The attacker approached a group of soldiers on a motorbike before detonating an explosive belt, injuring one of them, witnesses said.

An al-Qaeda offshoot has claimed responsibility for the attack in the north's most populous city.

Meanwhile, army infighting in the capital has left one person dead.

At least five people were injured when heavily-armed regular soldiers clashed with elite "Red Beret" paratroopers at their base in Bamako.

Start Quote

I don't understand how at a moment when French and African forces are here to fight our war in our place... Malian soldiers... are fighting over a stupid quarrel”

End Quote Assa, Bamako resident

The violence broke out on the day the first group of European Union military instructors arrived in Bamako to train up Mali's deeply-divided army.

In Paris, the UN's cultural agency Unesco said it planned to help rebuild 11 mausoleums and tombs that were destroyed by the militants when they fled the historic city of Timbuktu.

An initial cost of the damage to the city's rich cultural heritage has been put at $4-5m but Unesco warns that the figure could rise once its experts begin to assess the damage.

Mines check

The suicide bomber detonated his explosives after approaching a checkpoint on the outskirts of Gao at about 06:30 GMT, witnesses said.

It is the first known suicide attack in Mali since France sent some 4,000 troops into the north on 11 January to help the Malian army oust the militants.

Treasures of Timbuktu

  • Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries
  • 700,000 manuscripts had survived in public libraries and private collections
  • Books on religion, law, literature and science
  • Added to Unesco world heritage list in 1988 for its three mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums
  • They played a major role in spreading Islam in West Africa; the oldest dates from 1329
  • Islamists destroyed mausoleums after seizing the city

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), an offshoot of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack "against the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam", and vowed to carry out further attacks.

The BBC's Mamadou Moussa Ba in Gao says there is an increased military presence in the city, with patrols and checkpoints run by troops from France, Mali and neighbouring Niger.

He says there are fears that mines could have been left in the town, with schools and the town hall in particular being checked carefully.

On Thursday, there were unconfirmed reports that four Malian soldiers had been killed by a landmine on a road near Gao, with one of the militant groups saying it had carried out the attack.

'Strategic town'

Witnesses said the Bamako base of the "Red Beret" paratroopers was stormed by soldiers allied to the leadership of the coup.

Nearby residents fled in panic as sounds of heavy gunfire and smoke emanated from the barracks on the Niger river.

At least one person died and five were wounded in the fighting, according to sources.

The Red Beret paratroopers protected President Amadou Toumani Toure before he was ousted in a military coup in March 2012, and have been largely sidelined since then.

They had reportedly mutinied over attempts to disperse them as a force before sending them to join the fight against the Islamists.

One local resident said the incident had made her ashamed to be Malian.

"I don't understand how at a moment when French and African forces are here to fight our war in our place... Malian soldiers, instead of going to fight at the front, are fighting over a stupid quarrel," Assa told Reuters.

The fighting has coincided with the arrival of 70 EU trainers, who are the first of an eventual 500 military instructors deployed to build up the Malian army.

Colonel Bruno Heluin, commander of the group, said the aim was 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".

French troops have retaken control of the north's main towns, and are now, along with some 1,000 Chadian troops led by the president's son, moving into the mountains near the Algerian border where the militants are reported to have fled.

They said on Friday they had taken Tessalit, a strategic town in the mountains with its own airport.

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