GAO, Mali Black-robed Islamic extremists armed with AK-47 automatic rifles penetrated the most populous city in northern Mali on Sunday, engaging the Malian army in combat in a surprise attack two weeks after French and Malian troops ousted the jihadists.
The attack in Gao shows the Islamic fighters, many of them well armed and with combat experience, are determined and daring and it foreshadows a protracted campaign by France and other nations to restore government control in this vast Saharan nation in northwest Africa.
The Islamic radicals fought against the Malian army for more than two hours and were seen roaming the streets and on rooftops in around the police headquarters in the center of Gao. Gunfire echoed across the city.
Families hid in their homes. One family handed plastic cups of water through the locked iron gate to others hiding on their patio. Piles of onions lay unattended where market women fled when the Islamists arrived.
The fighting appeared to center near the police headquarters, where Malian soldiers with rocket propelled grenades traded fire with the combatants believed to be from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO. The only sound was gunfire and the bleating of goats. Soldiers were positioned at every corner in the neighborhood of mud-walled buildings.
Ever since French forces took the town, Islamists had clashed with security forces on its outskirts. This was the first time they succeeded in entering the city. On Saturday night, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a checkpoint at the entrance to Gao. A suicide bomber also blew himself up in Gao on Friday, killing only himself.
Besides Gao, French and Malian forces have also retaken the fabled city of Timbuktu and other places, pushing the Islamic extremists back into the desert, where they pose a constant threat to Malian and allied forces. Several African nations have also contributed troops to the battle against the extremists, who imposed their harsh version of Islamic law in the north,.
The armed Islamists seized the northern half of Mali in April, sending poorly disciplined and equipped Malian forces retreating in disarray. France its military intervention in its former colony on Jan. 11 when the Islamists, many of whom had fought for ex-Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi, began encroaching on the south, threatening the capital Bamako which lies deep in southern Mali.
France has said that it wants to hand over responsibility to the Malian military and other African nations who have contributed troops and has raised with the United Nations Security Council the possibility of establishing a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali.