, GAO, Mali, Feb 9 – Malian troops bolstered security at army checkpoints and villagers detained two youths allegedly strapped with explosives on Saturday after Islamists claimed responsibility for the country’s first suicide attack.
Residents of a village near Gao, the largest city in the north, detained two youths they said were wearing explosive-rigged belts and travelling on the same road where the suicide bombing on Friday wounded a soldier at a checkpoint.
“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.
Soldiers and paramilitary police guarding checkpoints in Gao cut down trees to increase visibility, dragged sandbags in front of their positions and set up heavy machine guns in an effort to protect themselves from attacks.
In Friday’s blast, a young Tuareg dressed as a paramilitary officer rode a motorcycle up to a checkpoint and detonated an explosive belt, but failed to detonate a larger bomb he was carrying, an officer said.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed the attack and vowed to carry out more against “the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam”.
MUJAO is one of a trio of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali for 10 months before France sent in fighter jets, attack helicopters and 4,000 troops to drive them out.
The French-led operation, launched on January 11 as the insurgents advanced toward the capital Bamako, has succeeded in forcing the Islamists from the towns under their control.
But they are thought to retain a presence in the vast desert spaces of the country’s north, and France is now anxious to hand over the operation to United Nations peacekeepers amid fears of a prolonged insurgency.
Two Malian soldiers and four civilians have already been killed by landmines, and French troops are still fighting off what Paris called “residual jihadists” in reclaimed territory.
Some villages around Gao, 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) northeast of Bamako, continue to support the Islamists, French and Malian security sources say.
“As soon as you go more than a few kilometres outside Gao, it’s dangerous,” a Malian officer told AFP.
Despite the success of the French operation, Mali’s state and military remain weak and divided, a situation highlighted by a gunfight Friday in Bamako between rival army troops.