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More suicide bombs hit Mali after battle that kills 20 Islamists

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Five people, including two suicide bombers, died Friday in car bombings in northern Mali, a day after fierce urban battles between French-led forces and Islamists left up to 20 extremists dead, officials said.

Two vehicles targeting civilians and members of the ethnic Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, exploded near the town of Tessalit, killing three and wounding several others, a security source said. The suicide bomber drivers also died.

A spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in Burkina Faso confirmed the report. Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Asseleh said "the two kamikazes were killed and in our ranks there were three dead and four seriously wounded".

The blasts came after Al-Qaeda-linked rebels claimed a car bomb attack on Thursday near a camp occupied by French and Chadian troops in the city of Kidal, local officials said.

At least two civilians were reported wounded in that attack. The vehicle, apparently driven by a suicide bomber, was targeting the camp but exploded before it reached it, killing the driver, an official in Kidal governor's office said.

France sent in troops on January 11 to help the Malian army oust Islamist militants who last year captured the desert north of the country. Thousands of soldiers from African countries have also deployed since then.

The French-led forces are increasingly facing guerrilla-style tactics after initially meeting little resistance in their drive to oust Islamists from the main northern centres of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

The Tuareg MNLA blamed Friday's car bomb attacks on the Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of Mali's main Islamist groups.

The MUJAO made no comment on the latest attacks, but on Thursday it told AFP that it was responsible for the car bomb in Kidal.

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

He also said the group had sent fighters to Gao, 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from the capital Bamako, where battles erupted overnight Wednesday after about 40 Islamists infiltrated the city.

The Islamists briefly occupied the courthouse and the city hall but French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Malian and French forces backed by French helicopters repelled the attack on Thursday.

Le Drian said initally that five Islamists were killed in the fierce street fighting, but on Friday the French defence ministry reported that between 15 and 20 had died.

Sporadic gunfire was heard on Friday morning in Gao, then Malian soldiers opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades on the city hall, where MUJAO forces had holed up on Thursday, an AFP journalist said.

It was not immediately possible to determine whether Islamists were still active inside the building. A Malian soldier earlier said "many" bodies of dead fighters wore explosives belts, both in the city hall and the nearby court house.

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."

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.

A French legionnaire was killed on Tuesday in the mountainous Ifoghas region. The French military said that their "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 regained control of Kidal before the arrival of French troops.

About 1,800 Chadian troops were then deployed in the city as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), a military force organised by west African countries which France hopes will eventually become a UN stabilisation force.

Asked whether it was coordinating its efforts with the Tuaregs of the MNLA, the French military said Thursday it was working with "groups that have the same objective" as France.

Human Rights Watch this week urged Bamako to act in the light of reports of serious abuses committed by Malian troops against light-skinned people, particularly Arabs, in the north.

"The Malian government should urgently investigate and prosecute soldiers responsible for torture, summary executions, and enforced disappearances of suspected Islamist rebels and alleged collaborators," it said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130222/more-suicide-bombs-hit-mali-after-battle-kills-20-islamists-0