Rebels forced from Gao city hall: French defence minister

Islamist rebels who seized the town hall and governor's residence in the Malian city of Gao have been forced out, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday as fresh clashes erupted in the region.

Reports earlier from Gao said there had been fresh fighting there and an apparent car bomb attack near a camp housing French troops.

"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.

Malian troops battled armed rebels in clashes that left the main courthouse in flames, after fighting erupted overnight with heavy gunfire reported around two main entrances to the city.

The troops were clashing with "about 40 Islamists" who had infiltrated the city from nearby villages, a military source said.

Le Drian, speaking in Brussels after the first day of a two-day NATO defence ministers meeting, said developments in Gao showed that "we are now in a real war, taking place in the north (of Mali) and around the towns that we have liberated.

Gao, some 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) north of the capital Bamako, is the biggest town in the northern, arid half of Mali.

Le Drian also noted the case of the French family abducted in northern Cameroon, saying Paris was in close contact with the authorities there and in Nigeria so as to ensure their freedom "as quickly as possible."

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