Gunbattle rocks Gao after rebels surprise French, Malians

Sun Feb 10, 2013 5:26pm EST
 
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By David Lewis

GAO, Mali (Reuters) - Islamist insurgents launched a surprise raid in the heart of the Malian town of Gao on Sunday, battling French and local troops in a blow to efforts to secure Mali's recaptured north.

Local residents hid in their homes or crouched behind walls as the crackle of gunfire from running street battles resounded through the sandy streets and mud-brick houses of the ancient Niger River town, retaken from Islamist rebels last month by a French-led offensive.

French helicopters clattered overhead and fired on al Qaeda-allied rebels armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades who had infiltrated the central market area and holed up in a police station, Malian and French officers said.

The fighting inside Gao was certain to raise fears that pockets of determined Islamists who have escaped the lightning four-week-old French intervention in Mali will strike back with guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings.

After driving the bulk of the insurgents from major northern towns such as Timbuktu and Gao, French forces are trying to search out their bases in the remote and rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, far up in the northeast.

But with Mali's weak army unable to secure recaptured zones, and the deployment of a larger African security force slowed by delays and kit shortages, vast areas to the rear of the French forward lines now look vulnerable to guerrilla activity.

"They infiltrated the town via the river. We think there were about 10 of them. They were identified by the population and they went into the police station," said General Bernard Barrera, commander of French ground operations in Mali.

He told reporters in Gao that French helicopters had intervened to help Malian troops pinned down by the rebels, who threw grenades from rooftops.   Continued...

 
A Tuareg soldier in the Malian army aims his rifle at a checkpoint along a road leading to the border with Niger in the northern city of Gao, Mali February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay