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Islamist group MUJAO claims north Mali attacks

Islamist rebel group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for an attack by gunmen Sunday on the city of Gao in northern Mali and a suicide bombing the day before. "Today God's faithful successfully attacked the Malian army, which let the enemies of Islam come to Gao. MUJAO also claims the suicide bombing yesterday that made the Malian soldiers flee," said Abou Walid Sahraoui, spokesman for the group, which had already claimed another suicide blast Friday, the country's first.

UPDATE 4-Gunbattle rocks Gao after rebels surprise French, Malians

* Islamists infiltrated Gao, French and Malian officers say * Attack shows up security vulnerability behind French lines * Suicide attack targeted same Gao checkpoint hit on Friday * As French hunt in mountains, fears of guerrilla war loom (Recasts, adds quotes from French general, Malian colonel) By David Lewis

Major explosion near Gao, northern Mali: AFP

A massive explosion near Gao in northern Mali late Saturday raised fears of an Islamist attack, hours after villagers near the city detained two youths preparing suicide bombings. The blast late Saturday was audible from the northern Malian city of Gao, which French-led forces only recaptured from the Islamists late last month. It went off at around 11:00 pm (2300 GMT), an AFP correspondent said. A French military source said it had happened some 10 kilometres (six miles) away from the French military base at the city's airport, but could provide no further details.

Mali villagers detain two youths with suicide vests

Villagers near the city of Gao in northern Mali on Saturday detained two youths alleged to have had explosives strapped to their bodies near the site of a suicide attack the previous day claimed by Islamist rebels, a witness said. "We arrested two young men early this morning. They had explosive belts and they were riding on two donkeys," Oumar Maiga, the son of the local village chief, told AFP. He said the pair, an Arab and a Tuareg, were detained some 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Gao, the largest city in the north, on the same road where Friday's attack occurred.

Timbuktu chose 'passive resistance' to Islamist occupiers

Timbuktu has been part of three empires, survived invasions and had countless rulers, and it met its 10-month occupation by Islamist extremists with the stoicism of a city that has seen centuries of history. The insurgents of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) ruled Timbuktu under a brutal form of Islamic law, or sharia, from the time they seized the city in the chaotic aftermath of a March military coup until French-led troops reclaimed it last week.

Hollande to visit Mali as French troops eye last bastion

President Francois Hollande prepared to visit Mali as French-led troops worked Friday to secure the last Islamist stronghold in the north after a lightning offensive against the extremists. Hollande, whose surprise decision to intervene in Mali three weeks ago has won broad support at home, will travel to the fabled city of Timbuktu and hold a working lunch in the capital Bamako with Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore, the Malian presidency said. "I am going to Mali to express to our soldiers all our support, encouragement and pride," said Hollande.

UPDATE 4-Mali secures recaptured towns, donors pledge funds

* House-to-house searches for rebels in Gao, Timbuktu * Donors pledge $455 million for African force, more needed * Pockets of Islamist fighters still reported outside towns * France sees African troops taking over security role (Adds details on US aid to Mali operation) By Richard Valdmanis and Adama Diarra

Fleeing Islamists leave legacy of destruction in Timbuktu

* Fears for historic texts as library burned * Ancient city bears brunt of Islamist destruction * United Nations "horrified" By Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood Jan 28 (Reuters) - The burning of a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali's desert city of Timbuktu is just the latest act of destruction by Islamist fighters who have spent months smashing graves and holy shrines in the World Heritage site.

FACTBOX-Timbuktu, ancient trading town caught up in Mali's war

Jan 28 (Reuters) - The Malian town of Timbuktu, recaptured from Islamist rebels by French and Malian troops, is an ancient centre of Islamic culture that grew rich in the 14th and 15th centuries as a trading post for gold and salt crossing the Sahara. Here are some facts about the town: * Timbuktu has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. Founded in 1100 by Tuareg nomads, it was once the richest town in the ancient empire of Mali, whose wealth came from the trans-Saharan caravan trade.
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