GAO, Mali -- French forces have surged into another town in north Mali, wresting Tessalit near the Algerian border from control of Islamic insurgents Friday even as the conflict's first suicide bombing increased fears of terror attacks.
Aicha Belco Maiga, president of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, confirmed by telephone from her home in the capital Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. She is in contact with a colleague in Tessalit.
"Since 8 a.m. ... French troops are in Tessalit. They control the entrance to the town, as well as the administrative buildings," said Maiga.
A suicide bomber hit a checkpoint in another northern Mali city, Gao, killing only himself. It was the first known suicide bombing since French military forces intervened on Jan. 11 in this chaotic African nation whose northern half was ruled for 10 months by armed Islamic extremists but who now see their hold shrinking.
In the capital Bamako, far to the south, soldiers from a unit allied with the leader of last year's military coup in Mali stormed the camp of the presidential guard Friday morning, and at least one person was killed and five were wounded, witnesses said. The incident underscores that Mali's military is in disarray and in poor shape to confront, without outside help, the well-armed Islamic extremists, many of whom have combat experience.
The red beret-wearing former presidential guard force, based at the Djicoroni camp in Bamako, was disarmed months ago by the green beret-wearing officers loyal to Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the leader of last year's coup. Their camp has been attacked on several occasions by the green berets, who seized the presidential guards' weapons.
When the green berets arrived at the military camp Friday they were confronted by women and children, and fired tear gas and volleys into the air, according to Batoma Dicko, a woman who lives in the camp. The camp includes housing for military families. The attackers succeeded in entering the camp, carried out a search and set fire to the infirmaries, she said.
Dr. Amadou Diallo, who works at the infirmary in the camp, known as Djicoroni Para Camp, said at least one person was killed and five were wounded.
"A young man in his 20s was hit by a bullet in the head and he died on the spot. The bullet pierced his face through his right cheekbone, and came out through his neck," Diallo said. "He was totally disfigured. There are also two women who were wounded, and three children, aged 11, 17 and around 15 years old."
The Red Berets were the elite presidential guard who protected former President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in the coup last March by junior officers.
Malian military spokesman Modibo Traore confirmed that a suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint at the entrance to Gao around 6 a.m. on Friday. The bomber, who was wearing an explosive belt, was the only casualty. The bomber was on a motorcycle and blew himself up just before a Malian military checkpoint. Officials at a French military base in Gao declined to comment on the attack.
Hours later, a building guarded by Malian soldiers at the scene of the attack was splattered in blood. The mangled, charred remains of the motorcycle lay in a heap nearby. The Malian soldiers said area residents had taken the man's remains away and buried them before sunset, as local Muslim custom dictates.
Residents who heard the blast from their mud-walled homes on the dusty road nearby described the attack.
"It shook so loudly I thought it had hit my house," resident Agali Ouedraogo said.
Fears have been high of such attacks since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives in Gao earlier this week.
France intervened in its former colony after the armed Islamists, who had taken control over northern Mali in April, began pushing south toward the capital. Several African nations have also contributed troops to the intervention force.
France has raised with the U.N. Security Council the possibility of establishing a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that he started discussions on the issue during closed council consultations on Mali on Wednesday. He said a U.N. force would deploy only when security conditions permit.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said there is widespread international support for replacing the current military operation with a U.N. peacekeeping operation, but this would require approval by the Malian government.
Ahmed reported from Timbuktu, Mali
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Born out of the Algerian Salafist movement, GSPC, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) arrived on the public stage in January 2007. It rose to prominence partly by attacking Algerian government forces but mainly through its involvement in kidnapping Westerners across the Sahel zone including Mali, Niger and Mauritania. It has also links to trans-Sahara smuggling - a trade that includes drugs, guns and people - topping up the tens of millions of dollars raised from ransom-taking. In July 2012, the head of U.S. Africa Command described AQIM as al-Qaeda's "wealthiest affiliate". <em>Caption: In this May 17, 2010 file photo, a nomad from the Tuareg tribe of the Sahara Desert brings his herd for vaccination to a team of U.S. Special Forces in the Sahara Desert handing out aid near the town of Gao in northeastern Mali. (AP Photo/Alfred de Montesquiou, File)</em>
Its objectives include ridding North Africa of Western influence, overthrowing apostate "unbeliever" governments. Its leaders are Algerian militant Abdelmalek Droukdel and Salah Gasmi. Gasmi, the group's number two, was arrested in northern Algeria last month. It has traditionally operated in Mali through two wings, or katibas. France has advised its 6,000 citizens in Mali to leave as AQIM has in turn promised revenge for the French military intervention in Mali. <em>Caption: A still from a video shows Islamist fighters walking in the streets of Gao on June 27, 2012. (STR/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Ansar Al Dine
Ansar Dine, which experts say has links to local al Qaeda factions, is a Tuareg-led Islamist group. Its name means "Defenders of the Faith" and it follows the puritanical form of Islam known as Salafism. Ansar Dine's leader, renegade Tuareg chieftain Iyad Ag Ghali, is linked to AQIM through a cousin who is a local commander and the group has received financing from AQIM, diplomats said. Ansar Dine and other Islamists gained the upper hand in Mali last year when they hijacked a rebellion launched by the secular MNLA Tuareg rebel group that fought for independence in 2012. <em>Caption: In this Aug. 31, 2012 file photo, fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu, Mali, as they prepare to publicly lash a member of the Islamic Police found guilty of adultery. (AP Photo/File)</em>
Ansar Al Dine
Ansar Dine's turbaned fighters, who operate under the black Islamist flag, initially gained a reputation in the north for keeping order after outbreaks of looting. However they started enforcing sharia, earning hostility from locals who have a long history of practising a more liberal, tolerant style of Islam. The group has said that Timbuktu's famed shrines are un-Islamic and idolatrous. Much of the area's religious heritage has now been destroyed. <em>Caption: In this April 24, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali. (AP Photo/File)</em>
The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) is seen an AQIM splinter group that formed in late 2011. The faction retains links to AQIM but has focussed on broadening its base from the domination of AQIM's Algerian-dominated leadership. Its stronghold has been in Gao, the biggest town in Mali's north, and it has drawn recruits from a range of ethnic groups in Mali and elsewhere in the region. Last month the United States designated the group and Hamad Al Khairy and Ahmad Al Tilemsi, two of the organisation's leaders, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. MUJWA has also been behind attacks and hostage taking in the region. <em>Caption: A Malian soldier partrols in the streets of Kidal 26 May 2006. (KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>