GAO, Mali (AP) — A suicide bomber hit a checkpoint in northern Mali on Friday, killing only himself in the first known suicide bombing since French military forces intervened in this chaotic African nation whose northern half was ruled by armed Islamic extremists.
And in the capital Bamako, far to the south, soldiers from a unit allied with the leader of last year's military coup in Mali stormed the camp of the Red Beret presidential guard Friday morning, and at least one person was killed and five were wounded, witnesses said. The bloodshed underscores that Mali's military is in disarray and in poor shape to confront, without outside help, the well-armed Islamic extremists, many of whom have combat experience.
The suicide bombing happened in the city of Gao, which was occupied by armed Islamic extremists until French-led military forces pushed them out. It was the first known suicide bombing in Mali since France started its military intervention on Jan. 11.
Malian military spokesman Modibo Traore confirmed that a suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint at the entrance to Gao around 6 a.m. on Friday. The bomber, who was wearing an explosive belt, was the only casualty. The bomber was on a motorcycle and blew himself up just before a Malian military checkpoint. Officials at a French military base in Gao declined to comment on the attack.
Friday afternoon, Malian soldiers stood guard at a building near the scene of the attack, splattered in the bomber's blood. The only other evidence of the attack were the mangled, charred remains of his bike. The Malian soldiers said that nearby villagers had taken the man's remains away and buried them before sunset, as local Muslim custom dictates.
Residents who heard the blast from their mud-walled homes on the dusty road nearby said the attack occurred just after 6 a.m.
"It shook so loudly I thought it had hit my house," resident Agali Ouedraogo said.
Fears have been high of such attacks since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives earlier this week. French troops on Thursday were amping up security and searching out Islamic extremists who may be mixing among the population in Gao. On Tuesday, extremists fired rocket launchers at French troops near Gao.
Malian soldiers gave up towns in northern Mali with hardly a fight last year to insurgents, and then a military coup in the capital, led by a captain, disrupted the command system. Witnesses described a concerted effort by a unit allied with the coup leader to take the camp of the presidential guard in Bamako.
"Since 6 a.m., the soldiers arrived in armored cars and pickup trucks, all of them armed to the teeth to attack our base. The women and children tried to stop them from entering the camp. They shot tear gas at us and started shooting volleys in the air," said Batoma Dicko, a woman who lives in the military camp. The camp includes housing for military families.
Dr. Amadou Diallo, who works at the infirmary in the camp, known as Djicoroni Para Camp, said there was at least one dead and five 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. 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 a coup last March by junior officers. Green-bereted troops backed Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, who seized power last year before ostensibly turning power back over to civilians, and they were the ones who attacked the camp on Friday.
Soon after the coup, the camp has been attacked several times by the pro-coup soldiers. On earlier occasions, they disarmed the soldiers, and removed all of their artillery and ammunition.
Ahmed reported from Timbuktu, Mali