GAO, Mali // Malian soldiers patrolling a city recently abandoned by Islamic insurgents uncovered a stash of industrial-strength explosives yesterday. They found grenades at another site and a possible booby-trapped vehicle, underscoring the risk of urban terror-style attacks.
The discoveries came a day after one rocket fired by suspected militants landed in a dusty residential neighbourhood of Gao and French soldiers clashed with militants outside the town. The developments highlight the complications for the military intervention by France and the risks of a looming French troop drawdown.
"It's a real war ... when we go outside of the centre of cities that have been taken, we meet residual jihadists," France's defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on Europe-1 radio. French troops clashed on Tuesday with Islamic extremists firing rocket launchers outside Gao, he said.
French President Francois Hollande said France may start pulling out of this vast nation in north west Africa at the end of March. Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said in Paris that the withdrawal will depend on an increase in the deployment of African forces, which are meant to take over the international effort to secure Mali and help its weak army keep the peace.
The UN Security Council is likely to wait until the end of February to adopt a new resolution authorising a UN peacekeeping force for Mali, a well-informed UN diplomat said. France is expected to keep a rapid reaction force in Mali to back up the UN force, two UN diplomats said.
The stash of NITRAM 5 explosives was hidden inside rice bags that were left in a communal trash area amid used tin cans of meat and empty plastic bottles. The Malian soldiers urged crowds of civilians who gathered nearby to stay away.
Gao has been held by French-led forces since late January, and there have been concerns of a counterinsurgency by remnants of the Islamist radicals belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO.
France's defence minister said hundreds of Islamist fighters have been killed, speaking on Tuesday night on France BFM TV.
Mr Le Drian said French aircraft are continuing airstrikes every night on suspected militant arms depots and mine-making sites. On the ground, troops have found war material, weapons manuals and makeshift laboratories for constructing improvised explosive devices.
"We discovered preparations for a true terrorist sanctuary," he said.
On Wednesday, frightened residents displayed a hole in a sandy field where they said a rocket had landed and was later removed by the Malian military.
"If they had hit a house, there would have been bodies here," said Adama Younoussa, a young man who lives nearby.
"If a MUJAO fighter can set himself up just 10 metres from here and fire things like this at us, what's the good of the army being here?" he asked.
France launched a swift military intervention on January 11 against Islamist extremists who had taken over northern Mali, where they imposed a harsh version of Sharia.