Mali troops battle Islamists in Gao as car bomb targets camp

Al-Qaeda-linked rebels claimed a car bomb attack near a camp housing French troops on Thursday as Malian and foreign forces battled to secure Mali's volatile north against Islamist fighters.

At least two civilians were wounded after a vehicle exploded near a camp occupied by French and Chadian troops in the city of Kidal, local officials said, in what appeared to be the conflict's first car bombing.

The Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of Mali's main Islamist groups, told AFP it had no difficulty getting into Kidal "to blow up a vehicle as planned".

"More explosions will happen across our territory," said MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui.

The spokesman also said the group had sent fighters to Gao, another northern Mali city, where clashes with French-backed troops were taking place.

French-led forces are increasingly facing guerrilla-style tactics after their offensive, launched in January, met little resistance to drive the Islamists from the main northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

A military source said battles erupted overnight Wednesday in Gao, the main city in Mali's north and 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from the capital Bamako, after about 40 Islamists infiltrated the city from nearby villages.

The main courthouse was in flames. An AFP correspondent said the fighting was focused near the courthouse and Gao's city hall.

But French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking in Brussels, said late Thursday that the troops had finally repelled the Islamists.

"The rebels occupied the Gao city hall and the governor's residence. Mali army troops, backed up by French forces, reacted and five Islamists were killed. The situation has returned to normal," Le Drian said.

-- Rebels 'determined to retake city' --

MUJAO spokesman Sahraoui said the rebels were determined to recapture the city.

"Our troops have been ordered to attack. If the enemy is stronger, we'll pull back only to return stronger, until we liberate Gao," he told AFP.

Gao was retaken by French and Malian forces on January 26 during an intervention to dislodge rebels who had seized control of the vast desert north last year.

The car blast in Kidal occurred just 500 metres (yards) from the camp occupied by French and Chadian forces.

An official in the Kidal governor's office said that the vehicle, apparently driven by a suicide bomber, was targeting the camp but exploded before it could reach the base, killing the driver.

Malian, French and West African troops are working to secure Mali's north against bombings and attacks after a French intervention launched last month dislodged rebels who had seized control of the area last year.

Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko said this week that large-scale military operations in the north were winding down, but sporadic fighting has continued, with a French legionnaire killed on Tuesday in the mountainous Ifoghas region.

France's army spokesman Thierry Burkhard said that the "Panthere 4" operation in the Ifoghas had already left 30 Islamists dead since the start of the week.

Ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali, who have long sought greater autonomy, initially backed the rebellion but later fell out with the Islamists and had retaken control of Kidal before the arrival of French troops.

About 1,800 Chadian troops were then deployed in the city as part of the West African AFISMA mission that France hopes will eventually become a UN stabilisation force.

Asked whether it was coordinating its efforts with the main Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, the French military said Thursday it was working with groups that shared its interests.

"It is not a question of collaboration. It's that the French army is pursuing goals that have been clearly identified. The French army of course coordinates with groups that have the same goals as us," military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told reporters.

Malian forces have been accused of carrying out abuses during their operations in the north, including summary killings, and on Thursday Human Rights Watch urged the government to punish those responsible.

"The Malian government should urgently investigate and prosecute soldiers responsible for torture, summary executions, and enforced disappearances of suspected Islamist rebels and alleged collaborators," the New York-based group said in a statement.