GAO, Mali (AP) — French and Malian government forces on Monday have regained control of this strategic northern city, after Islamic fighters invaded through the city's harbor Sunday and fought a protracted battle for hours in the heart of downtown.
The brazen assault came after two suicide bombers tried to attack military checkpoints on Gao's outskirts. Sunday's assault marked the first time the jihadists had penetrated the city of mud-walled buildings since they fled two weeks ago.
French President Francois Hollande said Monday his goal is that "not one space of Mali's territory be under the control of terrorists."
Hundreds of Gao residents gathered around the heavily damaged police headquarters in the center of the city early Monday where body parts lay strewn about. The al-Qaida-linked militants concentrated their attack on the police center in northern Mali's largest city.
"Yesterday we heard the gunfire and hid in our homes all evening," said Soumayla Maiga as he stood with friends near the rubble of the police offices. "We were stunned when we came out and saw what happened."
The radical Islamic fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, had ruled Gao for nearly 10 months before they were ousted at the end of January.
The black-robed jihadists, armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, returned to the city by crossing the Niger River in wooden boats to launch their assault Sunday afternoon, said French Gen. Bernard Barrera, citing the Malian military. The gun battles lasted more than five hours.
By nightfall French military helicopters flew overhead to patrol the city. Two explosions rang out overnight but early Monday the only sounds in the city were the morning call to prayer and barking dogs.
Malian Lt. Col. Nema Sagadam said that it was unclear how many jihadist fighters had penetrated the city in Sunday's attack, though at least 10 were killed by Malian forces.
Malian soldiers fired on the police building because the radical Islamic fighters were hiding inside, she said.
"We used heavy arms to attack the building because it was infested with militants who were firing at people," Sagadam said.
The walls and ceiling inside the police building were heavily stained with blood and the damage was consistent with an explosion, suggesting a suicide bomber may have blown himself up inside the police offices during the fighting.
Residents who had cowered in their homes during the heavy gunfire cautiously ventured out onto the streets where groups in circles looked at the human remains.
Women used their veils to cover their noses and mouths as they passed two blown off legs lying in the sand. The remains of a disemboweled donkey also were in front of the police building.
Two civilians died from gunshot wounds, while 10 others were wounded, according to Dr. Moulaye Djiteye at the Gao hospital. The body of a third man was carted away later Monday morning; residents said he had been hit by a stray bullet while riding by on his motorcycle.
Ten other people were treated for their wounds at the hospital, Djiteye said.
Islamic militants had previously clashed with Malian forces on the outskirts of town, but Sunday's attack was the first time of fighting in the city center.
The dramatic attack Sunday highlights the challenges ahead for the Malian and French forces, who initially drove the militants out of the city after facing little resistance.
While the suicide bombers have not killed anyone other than themselves, residents said at least one of them had been living in a known jihadist hideout for seven months. The house where the young man stayed also 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.
In Timbuktu, the Malian military continued to receive tips from civilians about stores of ammunition left behind by the Islamic extremists. On Monday, a unit led by Capt. Adama Diarra received a phone call alerting them to a stash of grenades hidden inside a carton for powdered milk. The box was found by children in a cemetery that the fighters had used as a part-time base, he said.
"The children saw the box and they were trying to open the sachets of milk, when they saw something metallic poking out. Luckily they were smart enough to call their parents, who alerted us," he said. "We are continuing to find arms every day. It's the population that alerts us each time."
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Timbuktu, Mali and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.