GAO, Mali – A young militant who locals say had ties with terror leader Moktar Belmoktar blew himself up Friday near a military checkpoint on the outskirts of Gao, fueling fears of a looming insurgency by the jihadists who fled into the nearby desert just two weeks ago.
The suicide attack, the first of its kind since the French-led mission began in January, highlights the challenges that remain despite the retaking of northern Mali's largest town by French and Malian forces nearly two weeks ago.
They faced little resistance in initially recapturing Gao, though the discovery of industrial-strength explosives and Friday's bombing suggest the Islamic radicals are far from defeated.
Residents of Gao on Friday described the suicide bomber, who killed only himself, as an 18-year-old Arab man who spoke French well and had lived in the town for about seven months in a house known as a jihadist hideout. They said he was known by the name Al Farouk.
Boubacar Armou, the guard who has watched over the home since last year said Belmoktar had visited it as recently as three months ago. The Algerian national who has long operated in Mali, claimed responsibility for the terror attack on a BP-operated natural gas plant in Algeria.
Other jihadist leaders from the group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, known as 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.
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 to the town.
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.
"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 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.
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.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the suicide attack in Gao and internal clashes in Bamako "speak to the continuing fragility of the security situation in Mali (and) the importance and fact that the Malian army itself is going to need continued and strong support."
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," Diallo said. "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.
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.