Malian soldiers man a bridge at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Friday Feb. 8, 2013, where a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed himself attempting to blow up an army checkpoint. It was the first known time a suicide bomber operated in Mali. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
GAO, Mali (AP) — A suspected al-Qaida-linked militant blew himself up near a military checkpoint Friday on the outskirts of Gao in the first suicide bombing attack since the French-led mission began, fueling fears of a looming insurgency by the jihadists who fled into the nearby desert just two weeks ago.
French and Malian forces faced little resistance in initially taking back the provincial capital of Gao nearly two weeks ago, though the discovery of industrial-strength explosives and Friday's bombing suggest the Islamic radicals are far from defeated.
The Malian military blamed Friday's bombing on the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a group known as MUJAO which had ruled Gao for nearly 10 months before being ousted at the end of last month. The suicide bomber was the only one killed, said the Malian military and residents.
Meanwhile, French forces surged into the country's far north near the border with Algeria overnight, retaking Tessalit.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard confirmed Friday that French and Chadian forces now control the town and airport of Tessalit after an overnight assault involving French special forces who parachuted in.
Aicha Belco Maiga, president of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, confirmed the news by telephone from her home in the capital of Bamako, saying she had been 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.
The success of Tessalit, however, was overshadowed by Friday's attack in Gao and clashes between soldiers in the capital in Mali's south.
The suicide bomber ignited his explosives belt just after 6 a.m. near a military checkpoint, according to Malian military spokesman Modibo Traore.
Hours later, the charred and mangled remains of the bomber's motorcycle lay strewn in a field not far from the checkpoint. Blood stained the wall on a building where three soldiers stood guard.
Malian soldiers said that nearby villagers had taken the bomber's remains away and buried them following the attack. Residents said the bomber was known as Al Farouk, who was described as an Arab man of about 18 years old who spoke French well. They said he had been living in a MUJAO hideout in Gao for seven months. The guardian of the hideout said that the building had been visited by Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian national who has long operated in Mali and who claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.
Residents who heard the blast from their mud-walled homes on the dusty road nearby described the attack.
"I was sleeping in my house when I heard the explosion," said Yanoussa Toure, as he sat on his motorcycle out front with a large bag of rice tied to the back.
"It shook so loudly I thought it had hit my house," said his neighbor, Agali Ouedraogo, who later went to the scene nearby.
Fears have been high of such attacks since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives in Gao earlier this week. A land mine also killed four Malian soldiers last week in the town of Gossi, about 200 kilometers (124 miles)away, fueling fears that Islamic militants may be planting them.
Officials at a French military base in Gao declined to comment on the attack.
In Bamako, the capital, Mali's military showed signs of growing tensions after 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.
At least one person was killed and five were wounded, witnesses said. The incident underscores that Mali's military is in poor shape to confront the well-armed Islamic extremists in the north.
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.
The chaos of the coup allowed Tuareg and Islamic rebels to grab hold of north Mali. In April, the Islamic extremists gained control of the territories and began imposing strict Shariah law. France intervened in its former colony on Jan. 11 after the armed Islamic rebels began pushing south toward the capital. Several African nations are also contributing 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