Malian troops man an observation post outside Sevare, some 620 kms (400 miles) north of Mali's capital Bamako
Islamic extremists based in the Malian town of Ansongo have destroyed a bridge near the Niger border, officials said on Friday, marking the first use of explosives by the insurgents since the start of a French-led military intervention two weeks ago.
The explosion shows that the extremists remain a nimble and daunting enemy, despite gains by the French, who have recaptured three towns from the insurgents and on Friday pushed toward the Islamist stronghold of Gao, one of three provincial capitals controlled by the al-Qaida-linked rebels, reports The Associated Press.
Djibril Diallo, the village chief of Fafa, located 12 miles (20 kilometres) from the bridge, said by telephone on Friday that residents of his town had called him to confirm that members of the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa had travelled toward the border with Niger to the outskirts of Tassiga on Thursday, before destroying the bridge crossing into the town. The rebel group, also known as MUJAO, travelled from the locality of Ansongo, roughly 25 miles (40 kilometres) from Tassiga.
"That's exactly right. They exploded it. It was last night at around 9 p.m. The Islamists left their barracks in Ansongo after the airstrikes, and headed toward Niger. They caused the collapse of the bridge near the town of Tassiga, not far from Niger," said Diallo.
Julie Damond, a spokeswoman with aid group Doctors Without Borders, which has a team in Ansongo, said no injuries were directly related to the explosion. However, several people were being treated in the Ansongo hospital after a bus they were riding in fell into a hole in the bridge caused by the blast, she told The Associated Press by telephone from Bamako, the Malian capital.
The attack recalls insurgent tactics used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It appeared aimed at stopping the advance of African troops, stationed in neighbouring Niger, who are expected to travel by road into Mali past Tassiga in order to retake the strategic town of Gao. However, the bridge is not the only way to cross the body of water, said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanate, a former deputy in Mali's parliament from the district where Tassiga is located.
"It's a bridge that is especially used to cross the canyon during the rainy season, when there is a lot of water. But you can make a detour of 3 to 6 miles (5 to 10 kilometres) and find another way to continue on the Niger-Gao road," he said.
However, the bombing of the bridge in Tassiga should cause concern about the strategic bridge leading into the city of Gao itself, said several officials.
An elected official from northern Mali, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal, said that fighters belonging to MUJAO were seen on the bridge leading to Gao overnight, and there were reports that they planned to bomb it. They then abandoned the idea.
"Their intention was to dynamite it. But finally they decided not to. I don't know why they abandoned their plan to do so," the official said.
Despite these setbacks, Mali's military and French forces pushed toward Gao on Friday, in their farthest move north and east since launching an operation two weeks ago to retake land controlled by the rebels, residents and a security official said Friday. The soldiers were seen in the town of Hombori, according to residents, who said they stayed several hours in the area before heading back westward.