Mali hit by first suicide bombing

A suicide bomber blew himself up in Mali on Friday as a dramatic turn towards guerrilla tactics by Islamists and an outbreak of fighting among feuding soldiers show the war is far from won for the embattled nation.

In Mali's first-ever suicide bombing, an attacker drove a motorcycle up to an army checkpoint in Gao, the largest town in the north, and detonated an explosive belt, wounding one soldier, said First Sergeant Mamadou Keita.

The attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of a trio of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali for 10 months before France sent in fighter jets, attack helicopters and 4,000 troops to drive them out.

"We claim today's attack against the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam," MUJAO spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui told AFP, vowing further attacks.

The turn to guerrilla warfare comes after French-led forces ousted the extremist fighters from the towns under their control, sending many fleeing into remote desert hills around Tessalit, a town near the Algerian border that French-led forces took Friday.

Some of the fleeing Islamists have also been spotted as far away as Sudan's troubled Darfur region, a Sudanese rebel commander said. A regional political expert confirmed the claim.

Despite the successes of France's offensive, the Malian state remains weak and divided, a situation highlighted by clashes between elite paratroopers and soldiers who opened fire on each other in the capital.

The gunfight erupted after the paratroopers -- who are loyal to ex-president Amadou Toumani Toure, ousted in a March coup -- shot into the air in protest at an order absorbing them into other units to be sent to the frontline.

"From 6:00 am (0600 GMT) heavily armed soldiers, from all units, attacked the camp," said Yaya Bouare, one of the soldiers inside the camp, adding that there were many wounded.

The violence came on the day the first EU military trainers arrived in Bamako to try to whip the Malian army into shape to face the Islamists.

The once-stable nation imploded last year after the coup by angry soldiers from the ramshackle army, which had been humiliated by a separatist rebellion among the fiercely independent Tuareg people in the north.

A month later, paratroopers launched a failed counter-coup. Fighting between feuding factions left 20 people dead.

With Bamako in disarray, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north, imposing a brutal form of Islamic law.

France launched a surprise intervention on January 11 in its former colony as the insurgents advanced towards the capital, raising fears the entire country could become a sanctuary for Al Qaeda-linked groups.

France is anxious to hand over the operation to UN peacekeepers amid fears of a prolonged insurgency, which will likely be amplified by Friday's bombing.

The bomber, a young Tuareg, was also carrying a larger bomb that failed to detonate, Keita said.

The attack came a day after MUJAO said it had "created a new combat zone" by organising suicide bombings, attacking military convoys and placing landmines.

Two Malian soldiers and four civilians have already been killed by landmines and French troops are still fighting off what Paris called "residual jihadists still fighting."

On Friday, French special forces parachuted into the airport at Tessalit, a strategic oasis in the far northeast, the army said.

Along with Chadian troops, they sought to flush the Islamists out of their last bastions in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, the target of major air strikes to cut them off from supplies.

-- 'Our concern is they may come back' --

UN leader Ban Ki-moon expressed concern Thursday at the risk of a guerrilla fightback.

"All these jihadis and armed groups and terrorist elements -- seemingly they have fled," he said. "Our concern is that they may come back."

After announcing plans to start withdrawing its soldiers in March, France on Wednesday called for a UN peacekeeping force to take over.

But Ban warned it would take weeks for the Security Council to decide the next move, and officials said Mali's interim government had yet to accept a UN force.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is slowly deploying 6,000 troops in Mali, joined by another 2,000 from Chad.

A former US ambassador to Mali meanwhile said Friday that France and other European countries had channelled millions of dollars in ransom payments to the militants the French troops are now fighting.

Vicki Huddleston said in a TV interview that France paid $17 million to free hostages seized from a uranium mine in Niger in 2010.

She said as much as $89 million could have been paid out by European countries between 2004 and 2011.