Mali conflict: French-led forces retake Gao after surprise attack by rebels

Soldiers conduct house-by-house search in northern city for last remaining Islamist fighters after two days of heavy fighting

French and Malian forces have regained control of northern Mali's largest city after two days of instability and heavy fighting with Islamist rebels.

Soldiers cordoned off Gao and were conducting a house-by-house search to find any remaining fighters, sources said, after rebels invaded over the weekend by launching a surprise attack on the city.

"Yesterday was like nothing I have ever seen before," said a person in Gao who did not want to be named. "There was heavy gunfire for over four hours, there were street battles with the Malian and French soldiers fighting against the jihadists."

"Early this morning we heard a large bomb blast but no one seems to know what it is."

Many residents in Gao barricaded themselves in their homes during the weekend while fierce clashes took place outside in the streets.

On Monday morning many emerged around the heavily damaged police headquarters in the centre of Gao, where body parts lay strewn.

"Yesterday we heard the gunfire and hid in our homes all evening," Gao resident Soumayla Maiga told Associated Press. "We were stunned when we came out and saw what happened."

The French and Malian armies, part of an international military intervention against al-Qaida-linked groups operating in northern Mali, said Gao was now back under their control.

But the Malian government said Gao remained volatile.

"The situation is being managed by the military, but it is changing rapidly," Manga Dembele, the minister of communication, said. "As to whether the efforts are enough to rid the north of Islamists, we can't say until the conclusion of the military operation."

Recent events in Gao have heightened fears of a prolonged conflict in the country, where French air strikes have reportedly driven rebels into desert hiding places in the vast northern Sahara.

There were suicide bomb attacks in Gao on Saturday and Sunday – the first in Mali – in checkpoint blasts that one Islamist group – Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) – claimed it had carried out.

"What's happening in Gao is serious, but it's what most observers expected," a Bamako-based western diplomat said. "It's difficult to say whether this is some sort of final stand of the last few Islamists remaining around Gao, or whether they have the people and resources to stay and fight for years. I suspect it's more towards the former than the latter.

"Local people are very hostile to the Islamists, which makes this situation very different from Afghanistan, for example. This local popular support for the French intervention will make it much more difficult for these terrorist groups to operate in northern Mali."

Contributor

Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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