Grisly suicide attack at dawn strikes fear into Malians

The sky above Gao had just begun to lighten on Friday when a young man on a motorbike navigated a dirt road on the outskirts of the town at the edge of the Sahara desert, explosives strapped to his chest.

He drove past a large sign bearing the black and white emblem of the Islamists who until recently occupied this town, clutching a mortar bomb as he neared a checkpoint -- a few tyres across the road -- manned by a group of Malian soldiers.

A few of the troops saw him coming, moments before the explosion shattered the quiet of the dawn.

The suicide bomber "approached us on a motorbike, he was a Tamashek (Tuareg), and as he came closer he set off his belt," said First Sergeant Mamadou Keita.

"He died immediately, and among us one was injured."

The mortar bomb did not explode, saving the soldiers from a far deadlier outcome.

An AFP journalist on the scene shortly after the attack said the assailant was an adolescent dressed in a paramilitary police uniform.

"He was a whiteskin!" members of an angry crowd murmured as they gathered to take in the bloody aftermath of the explosion.

"Whiteskin" is how black Malians refer to Tuaregs and Arabs.

Alongside the twisted, burnt-out frame of the motorbike lay the grisly remains of Mali's first-ever suicide bomber, sent by one of the Islamist groups that occupied the country's north for 10 months until a French-led offensive drove them from their strongholds.

The young attacker was blown apart by the blast.

Volunteers gathered fragments of the bomber's body strewn around the area, loading them into a donkey-cart.

"We are afraid," said Youssouf Cisse, the crowd muttering in agreement. "We are not at all used to this, suicide bombers," added the man dressed in flowing blue traditional robes for the Muslim day of prayer.

"Security services need to take all measures to protect the population."

A French military source reported a second explosion near Gao on Friday morning, believed to be from a rocket.

Scattered in small villages in vast, hard-to-control terrain, the armed Islamists have remained active around Gao since French-led troops reclaimed it from the insurgents who ran the town under a brutal form of Islamic law.

Since their ouster, the Islamist group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) -- an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- have opted for guerrilla tactics, placing landmines and launching sporadic attacks.

On Tuesday another rocket landed just outside Gao, and this week at least six Malians, including two soldiers, were killed in landmine explosions on the road between Gao and Douentza, to the south.

Military sources report the discovery of explosives almost daily around Gao.

On Friday about a dozen suspected Islamists were captured and brought into town in pick-ups, their torsos bare and hands tied behind their backs, an AFP journalist said.

Later that afternoon at the checkpoint, the soldiers set to work cutting down the trees around their control post and piling up sandbags, hoping to protect themselves against further attacks.