Mali rebels fighting in Gao; car explodes in Kidal

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By BABA AHMED, Associated Press

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Islamic extremists clashed with military in Mali's northern city of Gao, a military official said Thursday, as French forces continued their push to eliminate remnants of al-Qaida-linked fighters who had controlled northern Mali.

Malian military spokesman Capt. Daouda Diarra said that fighters with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, attacked a Gao checkpoint late Wednesday and made their way into the city. The fighters were battling the army near the Town Hall in the city's center.

In Kidal, a town further north where control by French and Chad forces has been tentative, a car explosion in a mechanics garage killed two, including the driver and a security guard, a resident said.

Mossa Ansary said Thursday's explosion took place about 800 meters (875 yards) from a French military base. It was unclear if it was a suicide car bombing. French and Chadian forces are patrolling the city of Kidal, though it remains unclear if the northern administrative capital is secure.

Radical Islamic fighters spent weeks on the run from Malian cities under a French ground and air assault that began Jan. 11 after the rebels had pushed to southern territories. The French, meanwhile, are tightening a dragnet against the al-Qaida-linked militants in one of their last remaining redoubts, mountain sanctuaries near Algeria's border.

France's main military spokesman on Thursday said that a French Tigre attack helicopter fired on a pickup truck containing jihadist fighters during clashes in rugged northern Mali, killing about 10 insurgents.

Col. Thierry Burkhard said the firefight on Wednesday in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, near the Algeria border, came in the third day of an operation code-named "Panther," as French forces track and try to eliminate the Islamic extremists.

Burkhard said the operation is ongoing in the area. More than 20 insurgents and one French legionnaire died in similar clashes on Tuesday.

France's government has said it still hopes to pull out of its Mali operation in the coming weeks — eager for African forces to help stabilize the impoverished West African country. But the French President said that France will "go all the way — that's to say, arresting the last terrorist chiefs in northern Mali."

Gao Mayor Sadou Diallo said about 1,000 French troops are in the Gao region, along with about 3,000 Malian and African soldiers.

U.N. discussions about an African force for Mali have been under way for months, alongside efforts for a European Union training mission to help the Malian military.

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Associated Press reporter Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

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