x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Malian and French forces retake Gao after firefight

French and Malian government forces yesterday regained control of Gao after Islamist fighters invaded through the city's harbour on Sunday.

PARIS // French and Malian government forces yesterday regained control of Gao after Islamist fighters invaded through the city's harbour on Sunday.

The assault came after two suicide bombers tried to attack military checkpoints on the city's outskirts. The attack marked the first time the militants had breached the city of mud-walled buildings since they fled two weeks ago.

The French president, Francois Hollande, said yesterday his goal was that "not one space of Mali's territory be under the control of terrorists".

When the fighting in Gao stopped, hundreds of residents gathered at the badly damaged police HQ in the centre of the city, where body parts lay strewn about.

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

The Islamist fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa had ruled Gao for nearly 10 months before they were ousted at the end of last month.

The black-robed militants, armed with AK-47 rifles, returned to the city by crossing the Niger River in wooden boats, said Gen Bernard Barrera, a French officer. The gun battles lasted more than five hours.

By nightfall, French military helicopters flew overhead on patrol. There were two explosions overnight but early yesterday the only sounds in the city were the morning call to prayer and barking dogs.

Malian Lt Col Nema Sagadam said it was unclear how many fighters had entered the city but at least 10 were killed by Malian forces. Malian soldiers had fired on the police HQ because the militants were hiding inside, she said.

The walls and ceiling inside the building were stained with blood and the damage was consistent with an explosion, suggesting a suicide bomber had blown himself up inside during the fighting.

Two civilians died from gunshot wounds and a further 10 were wounded during the fighting, according to Dr Moulaye Djiteye from Gao hospital.

The body of a third man was taken away yesterday morning. Residents said he had been hit by a stray bullet while riding past on his motorcycle.