By BABA AHMED and KRISTA LARSON, Associated Press
GAO, Mali (AP) — French soldiers on Wednesday recovered an enormous stash of explosives that authorities believe radical Islamic fighters were using to make bombs for attacks on northern Mali's largest city, a Malian military spokesman said.
Meanwhile, officials in the capital said the army captain behind a coup last year that paved the way for radical Islamic militants to take over the north will be tasked with reforming the military.
France has said it intends to eventually hand over its mission to oust the Islamists to the Malian military and other African soldiers. The move is likely to heighten international concerns about whether Mali's army is up to the task.
Malian military spokesman Daouda Diarra said that the French military removed some 800 kilograms (1,700 pounds) of explosive materials from a house in Gao. The find raised further fears that jihadists could be preparing to stage devastating attacks on civilian centers.
The explosives had been discovered several days earlier, and the team had returned to the site in the morning, Diarra said.
French military officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Radical Islamic fighters withdrew from Gao on Jan. 26 after imposing their harsh interpretation of Shariah law in the most populous city in northern Mali for nearly 10 months.
Since their retreat, the Islamic extremists have launched two suicide bombings in the last week and invaded the city for a five-hour-long gun battle Sunday in the center of the city. Sunday's brazen assault marked the first time the jihadists had penetrated the city of mud-walled buildings since they fled.
Last week soldiers combing abandoned jihadist hideouts also found a stash of NITRAM 5 explosives hidden inside rice bags that were left in a communal trash area. The explosives are manufactured for use in mining, but can cause considerable damage when used as bombs.
Neither of the suicide bomb attacks has killed other people, but the pattern of attempts has raised alarm.
One of the suicide bombers had stayed in a Gao house where Islamic extremists lived when they controlled the city. The guard there said it had been visited by the one-eyed Algerian terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who was the architect of last month's attack on a BP plant in Algeria in which at least 37 people were killed.
Soldiers from Niger and Mali have been patrolling downtown Gao on foot in recent days in an effort to secure the city. On Wednesday, a new checkpoint with about two dozen Malian soldiers standing guard also was set up near the waterfront to control traffic.
Mali was plunged into turmoil after the coup in March 2012 created a security vacuum that allowed secular rebel Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. In the following months, the rebels were kicked out by the Islamists who imposed strict Shariah law in the north, including amputations for theft.
The military was thrown into disarray by the coup led by Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo. On Wednesday, officials said the man who helped overthrow the democratically elected president now would lead a committee working to reform the military.
"It's a question of giving a role to Captain Sanogo so that the Malian military can be reformed to correct the failures," said Capt. Mariam Sagara, the spokeswoman for the committee.
France launched a military operation Jan. 11 against the Islamic extremists after they started to move south into government-controlled areas and captured key towns.
Ahmed reported from Timbuktu, Mali.
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