BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — A suicide bomber on a scooter attacked a Malian army patrol in the troubled northern city of Gao on Saturday as other militants in a car sprayed the troops with gunfire sparking a clash that left three suspected militants and two soldiers dead, an official said.
The attack, in which four other soldiers were wounded, underscores the challenges facing the country following a French-led military intervention, which succeeded in liberating the three main towns occupied by the al-Qaida-linked groups in northern Mali. While the initial military campaign has succeeded in securing the largest population centers in the north, the extremists have found refuge in sparsely populated areas, from where they strike using roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
Lt. Col. Souleymane Maiga, head of public relations for the Malian army, told The Associated Press that a unit of Malian soldiers was on patrol at around 1:30 p.m. near the village of Amakouladji, located 45 kilometers (30 miles) north of Gao, when they spotted a suspicious man on a scooter and stopped him. While they were searching him, a car surged forward, and began spraying the troops with machine gunfire.
"That was when the jihadist on the motorcycle set off the bomb that he was wearing," Maiga said.
Two soldiers and three militants died, and four other Malian soldiers were wounded in the attack, he said. No foreign troops were involved.
France sent around 4,000 troops to Mali in January after the jihadists, who had already taken over a territory as large as France itself, began pushing south, threatening the last bastion of government control. It was just a matter of weeks before they succeeded in flushing out the militants from the three main northern cities and in early February, French President Francois Hollande made a triumphant stop in Timbuktu, which just days earlier had served as the Malian headquarters of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
It was only a matter of days before the suicide bombings began, first in Gao, where there have been at least four, then in Kidal and Timbuktu, which have had two each, respectively. The suicide bombings have so far not caused mass casualties in large part because they are mostly going off at checkpoints, killing the soldiers stationed there.
Saturday's attack appears to be more sophisticated, involving a double attack using the car as a distraction.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.
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