BAMAKO, Mali – Suspected Islamic militants set off explosions at two bridges in northern Mali, residents said Tuesday, as violence escalated in the region following months of relative calm after the jihadists were ousted by a French-led military intervention.
The dynamite attacks on the bridges came hours after other suspected militants fired mortar rounds on the city of Gao, wounding at least seven people in the first significant assault inside the town since late March.
The renewed unrest has alarmed residents as the French military prepares to drawn down its presence in Mali and as discontent with the Malian military’s efforts grows.
Gao resident Ousmane Maiga said that two bridges were attacked along the road from Niger’s border to Gao, the most populous town in the region and the base of the French military’s operation in its former colony.
Olivier Salgado, spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA, confirmed the attacks on bridges both near the town of Ansongo. The first bridge was near the Niger border about 120 miles (200 kilometres) from Gao, while the second was located in a village about 100 miles (160 kilometres) from Gao.
“Around 6 p.m. Monday, the Bendja bridge near Ansongo was damaged by an explosion but traffic by vehicles is still possible,” he said. “A demining team escorted by MINUSMA forces is on the scene.”
The extent of damage at the second bridge in the village of Bara was not immediately known, he said.
Col. Gilles Jaron, spokesman for the French military in Paris, said French forces were not in the zone hit by Tuesday’s strikes on the bridges, and they were consulting with MINUSMA to try to obtain details.
Back in January, the radical militants also blew up another bridge near the border with Niger in an effort to slow military convoys and supplies arriving over land from the neighbouring country to aid the French-led mission.
Gao fell under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants for nine months after they seized power in the wake of a March 2012 coup in Mali’s capital. MUJAO, or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, established its radical interpretation of Islamic law known as Shariah. Soon public amputations were taking place, and women were forbidden from going in public without being veiled.
The French-led military operation launched in mid-January ultimately forced MUJAO from Gao, though remnants of the rebel group remain cloistered in surrounding villages. The group claimed responsibility for a series of dramatic attacks on the town in February and March, including suicide bombings.
Last month in Bamako, French President Francois Hollande slightly extended France’s timetable for a drawdown to 1,000 troops: Instead of the end of this year, France is now targeting the end of January 2014.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.