Northern Mali clashes kill 7 after Islamist 'attack'
AFP, Sunday 24 Mar 2013
At least seven people killed in clashes between the Malian army and Islamists in northern the country

Clashes between the Malian army and Islamists killed seven people Sunday, including a soldier and two civilians, military sources said, after militants infiltrated northern Mali's largest city, Gao.

The fighting took place as the Malian army carried out what it called a "clean-up" operation after Islamist militants opened fire on an army camp in Gao overnight.

"A Malian soldier, four Islamists and two civilians were killed Sunday during exchanges of gunfire between the Malian army and Islamists," an African security source told AFP in Gao.

The city was now "calm" again, the source said, adding that the army, "backed by French and African troops, had the situation under control".

A Malian military source confirmed the toll from the clashes.

The fighting came after the radical Islamist group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said its fighters had infiltrated Gao late Saturday night and "attacked" a Malian army camp.

"The mujahedeen are going to continue fighting until the final victory," said Oumar Wahab, a MUJAO leader who was one of the city's rulers during the months that Al-Qaeda-linked groups controlled northern Mali, implementing a harsh version of Islamic law.

A Malian military source earlier said the army was "carrying out a clean-up to dislodge any Islamists that may have infiltrated" the city, downplaying the significance of the incident overnight.

"Some individuals fired three AK-47 shots at a Malian military camp in Gao overnight," the source said.

"Our men responded forcefully. We see it as a very minimal incident. You can't even call it an attack."

The Islamist militants were chased from Gao in January by a French-led military operation to reclaim Mali's vast desert north after a 10-month occupation.

The city was hit by several suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks in the following weeks, and Islamist fighters have continued to clash with French and African forces in the surrounding area.

Mali descended into chaos in the wake of a March 2012 coup, as Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels capitalised on the power vacuum to seize a Texas-sized triangle of desert territory in the north.

Fighting in recent weeks has been concentrated in the Ifoghas mountains in the extreme northeast of the country, where French and Chadian soldiers are trying to flush out lingering groups of rebels.

In one of the most significant successes yet of its intervention, Paris confirmed on Saturday that one of the key leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, had been killed in fierce fighting with French-led forces in the Ifoghas late last month.

Paris has said it hopes to begin the withdrawal of its roughly 4,000 troops in Mali from the end of April and hand over responsibility to Malian troops and an African stabilisation force.