French charge north in Mali, Bamako shooting kills two

Fri Feb 8, 2013 3:43pm EST
 

By Tiemoko Diallo and David Lewis

BAMAKO/GAO, Mali (Reuters) - French forces hunting Islamist rebels in northern Mali parachuted into a strategic town and took control on Friday, 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 50 km (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 11, some 4,000 French troops backed by warplanes and helicopters have driven Islamist rebels out of the main urban centers 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.

FIRST SUICIDE BOMBING

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

A soldier who witnessed the attack said a man on a motorbike approached a checkpoint from the town of Bourem. Ignoring orders to halt, he pulled up his shirt and there was a large blast.   Continued...

 
A soldier points his finger at the wreckage of a motorbike used by a suicide bomber who blew himself up at a checkpoint north of Gao, recently retaken from Islamist rebels, February 8, 2013. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay