French soldiers detonate three grenades in a controlled explosion in the area where a suicide bomber exploded at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Sunday Feb. 10, 2013. It was the second time a suicide bomber targeted the Malian army checkpoint in three days. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
GAO, Mali (AP) — A suicide bomber wearing military fatigues blew himself up near a checkpoint at the entrance to northern Mali's largest city, wounding one soldier in the second attack to hit the same location since Friday, residents and officials said Sunday.
A column of French tanks stood guard along the sandy road leading to the scene, as French and Malian soldiers patrolled the surrounding residential neighborhood of mud-walled homes.
The attack took place late Saturday at about 11 p.m., according to Malian Capt. Daouda Diarra. On Sunday morning, the bomber's torso lay in the scorching sun in the middle of the road, while his head sat in a pile of sand in a nearby wheelbarrow.
"When he leaped over the wall, we fired at him," Diarra said of the suicide bomber. "He then detonated his explosive belt."
Cpl. Mamadou Abdoulaye Maiga said other weapons were left behind at the scene, and French forces detonated three grenades Sunday morning.
It was the exact location where an earlier suicide bomber riding a motorcycle had blown himself up Friday morning, an attack that raised fears the militants ousted from Gao by French and Malian forces could now be launching a new wave of violence.
The Malian military gave no details about the bomber in Saturday's attack, stating only that the young man was Arab and a suspected member of MUJAO — the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
The group seized control of Gao in April 2012 and had ruled the city until the arrival of French and Malian forces in late January. Military officials have said that residual elements of the group remain in the Gao area, and other fighters are hiding in the surrounding desert.
Friday's suicide bomber had been living at a known jihadist hideout in Gao, according to local residents. A guard at the home said that it had been visited three months ago by the one-eyed terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who claimed responsibility for the attack on the BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.
Other jihadist leaders from MUJAO also had stayed in the luxurious two-story home with a verdant courtyard, which the militants took over when they captured Gao last year, the guard said.
Fears of suicide bombing attacks in Gao have been high since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives in the city last week. Four Malian soldiers also were killed by a land mine in the town of Gossi, raising fears the militants were planting explosives in the road.
On Sunday, crowds of nearby residents gathered under the shade of a few trees by the site of the suicide bombing attack. It was the second time in as many days that their homes had been shaken by blasts from suicide bombers.
"I am really afraid. You hear about these kinds of things in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Gao is becoming like Pakistan," said Maouloud Dicko, 30, as he sat on his motorcycle.
Malian soldiers are fighting jihadists in their desert hideouts just outside Gao, the country's defense minister said Saturday.
Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara said that at least two militants were killed during the fighting that took place Friday several miles (kilometers) outside northern Mali's largest town.
"We call on the population of Gao not to give in to panic and above all to cooperate with defense and security forces to drive out the terrorists who are trying to infiltrate among civilians," Camara said by telephone from Bamako, the capital.
Radical jihadists seized control of the major towns across northern Mali in April last year following a military coup in the distant capital, and a planned military intervention by West African neighbors stalled.
France intervened in its former colony on Jan. 11 after the militants began pushing south and seizing towns in central Mali, raising alarm that they were inching closer toward the capital.
While the French and Malian forces were able to retake the towns in central Mali, as well as Timbuktu and Gao, the latest suicide attacks indicate the militants are far from defeated.
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Timbuktu, Mali.