, BAMAKO, Oct 7 – Armed Islamic extremists on Monday shelled Gao, the largest town in northern Mali, wounding at least one Malian soldier, military sources told AFP, two days after regional peace talks resumed.
“The Islamists lobbed shells on the town of Gao from a distance. For the moment, I cannot say whether there were victims or not,” a Malian general staff officer told AFP, asking not to be named.
“Troops were at once sent to the place where the shell-fire was coming from,” the source added.
The violence followed the resumption on Saturday of talks between the government of the vast west African country and Tuareg separatist rebels and two associated Arab bodies in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou.
Two Gao residents told AFP that Monday’s shells came from a place called Bourem, to the north of the city in the desert.
“I heard heavy weapons fire from the outskirts of Bourem. I saw a Malian soldier lying on the ground. I don’t know whether he was dead or wounded, but he had been hit,” said Maha Toure, a nurse whose home adjoins the Gao mosque in the north of the town.
Another resident who had been on his motorcycle in the same district said he saw Malian and French troops heading out to the source of the shelling.
The French soldiers — who have been sent to Mali to help quell an Islamist insurgency — were riding a “heavy” armoured vehicle, he said.
A member of the communications service of France’s Serval intervention force said he could “confirm that there were indeed five explosions in the vicinity of Gao. We don’t yet know whether they were shellfire or rocket attacks. We’re looking.”
“Two houses in the town were hit. As for a toll, at the moment we know that a Malian soldier was injured. We’ve sent men to the spot alongside Malian troops,” the soldier added.
The blasts came nine days after a suicide attack in Timbuktu, the other main town in the north of Mali, which killed at least two civilians, wounded seven soldiers and killed the four bombers, according to the government.
Responsibility for the Timbuktu attack was claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which emerged in Algeria and operates across borders in the sub-Saharan Sahel region.
AQIM has no role in peace talks and is regarded as a major regional threat by Western powers as well as Sahel governments.
The activities of Islamic extremists in northern Mali are evidence that some of them remain active despite joint military intervention by French and African troops in January to drive the armed groups out of a region they held for 10 months, enforcing strict Sharia law and accused of atrocities against local people.
The Islamist forces swept to power in the wake of an uprising by the once nomadic Tuaregs — who have for decades sought their separate homeland, known as Azawad — after Mali was plunged into chaos in March 2012 by a coup in Bamako, more than 1,000 kilometres (300 miles) to the south.
French troops were more than 4,000 strong at the height of their intervention, but their numbers have since been cut to 3,000 and Paris plans to draw them down to 1,000 by the end of the year.
They have intervened alongside a Malian army that is undergoing renewal after its territorial losses to the Tuareg rebels and groups linked to Al-Qaeda. A UN African force (MINUSMA) has also been deployed and currently consists of 6,000 men.