By Cheick Diouara
GAO, Mali (Reuters) - Five people were killed in a remote Malian town on Friday in car bomb attacks by Islamists on Tuareg MNLA rebels with close links to French forces, a spokesman for the Tuareg fighters said.
Violence in northern Mali underscores the risk of French and African forces becoming entangled in a messy guerrilla war as they try to help Mali's weak army counter bombings and raids by al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants.
Friday's car bomb attacks in In Khalil, 1,700 km (1,000 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, came a day after a car bomb killed two people in the northern city of Kidal and French and Malian troops killed 15 Islamists on the streets of the city of Gao.
Sporadic gunfire was also heard in Gao on Friday, and a Malian officer said an Islamist fighter was still holed up near the banks of the Niger River.
Moussa Ag Assarid, a Paris-based representative of the pro-autonomy MNLA Tuareg fighters, said suspected Islamists had first tried to drive into a building in In Khalil, but the car was destroyed by fighters ahead of impact.
A second car then drove into the group's local operations center and exploded.
Aside from the two bombers, Ag Assarid said three MNLA fighters were killed and three others wounded. It was not possible to independently verify the report.
The MNLA swept across northern Mali in April, taking advantage of a power vacuum left by a coup in Bamako. But its revolt was eclipsed by a loose alliance of Islamist jihadists, including al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM.
France is six weeks into an offensive to clear Islamist fighters from Mali's north, which Paris said was in danger of becoming a springboard for attacks on the region and the West.
In the meantime, the MNLA says it has retaken control of Kidal and towns around the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where Islamists are believed to be hiding near the Algerian border.
FRENCH WITHDRAWAL PLAN
France has established close links with Tuareg rebels on the ground and has set up a base at Kidal's airport but has kept a low profile in the town.
In Gao, the hub for French and Malian military operations in Mali's north, Malian government troops were carrying out house-to-house searches on Friday after a day of fighting.
"The buildings must be filled with dead enemy who still have unexploded grenades, guns and Kalashnikovs in their hands," Colonel Massaoule Samake told Reuters TV.
French army chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud, visiting Ottawa, told Reuters he was not surprised by the latest attacks and said he expected more to come.
"It's simply the continuation of attacks by MUJWA, which will probably want to try more attacks in the coming days. It was sadly predictable and the next attacks will fail just like they did yesterday."
MUJWA is a splinter faction of al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM which, in loose alliance with the home-grown Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine, held Mali's main northern urban areas for 10 months until the French offensive drove them out.
Paris has said it plans to start withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops from Mali next month. But rebels have fought back against Mali's weak and divided army, and African forces due to take over the French role are not yet in place.
Asked whether France still planned to start withdrawing troops in March, Guillaud replied: "This is obviously conditions-based, that's obvious. But ... I don't see any reason not to begin some drawdown."
(Reporting by Joe Penney in Gao, John Irish in Dakar, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Writing by John Irish; Editing by David Lewis and Andrew Roche)