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GAO, Mali - France bombed an Islamist rebel hideout Monday, February 11, in northern Mali's largest city, where troops rattled by guerrilla attacks intensified a security lock-down as the French-led campaign against the extremists entered its second month.
Witnesses said a French attack helicopter destroyed the central police station in Gao in a pre-dawn assault, after rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) hid in the building and opened fire on Malian troops Sunday, sparking a long street battle.
Hundreds of curious locals gathered in the morning outside the police station, where body parts and unexploded grenades were lying in the debris, before soldiers closed off the surrounding streets so a French team could demine the area.
Soldiers also evacuated the city's main market, which is near the police station.
"We fear an attack, that is why we are evacuating the Gao market for security reasons," said a high-ranking officer.
One witness to the helicopter attack said an Islamist fighter inside the police station had blown himself up.
Blood splatters and flesh still covered the concrete later in the day.
"It's disgusting but wonderful to see. These people tortured us, they did nothing but damage here," said Mahamane Tandina, 24.
During the 10 months the extremists occupied northern Mali, MUJAO had used the police station as the headquarters of its "Islamic police", tasked with enforcing a strict form of sharia with punishments including public whippings and amputations.
MUJAO has claimed Sunday's attack and a pair of suicide bombings Friday and Saturday, underlining the threat of a deepening insurgency in the former French colony.
France launched its operation on January 11, responding to a cry for help from Mali's interim government by sending fighter jets, attack helicopters and ground troops to battle Islamist rebels who had seized the north and were advancing into southern territory.
The campaign racked up a string of early successes as French and African troops drove the extremists from Gao, Timbuktu and the rest of the towns under their control.
But the turn to suicide attacks, landmine explosions and guerrilla fighting show the security problems still facing Mali -- and by extension France, which is eager to wind down the operation and hand over to a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Paris announced last week it would begin bringing its troops home in March.
President Francois Hollande said Monday the intervention had been a success.
"The greater part of Malian territory has been freed, no town is occupied by a terrorist group and no networks or groups who had up til now threatened the lives of Malians are capable of launching a real offensive," Hollande said.
"We are therefore no longer pursuing the liberation of territory but securing it."
At a joint press conference, his Nigerian counterpart Goodluck Jonathan warned that west African troops slowly being deployed in Mali would likely have to stay there "for some time".
"The rebels will come back as terrorists using guerrilla tactics," Jonathan said.
"It's not going to be an overnight operation."
'Mujahedeen are in the city of Gao'
A Nigerian general is leading the west African force, which will eventually include some 6,000 troops. France is pushing for them to be incorporated into a UN peacekeeping mission.
Chad has also pledged 2,000 troops, most of them already deployed.
US President Barack Obama on Monday allocated up to $50 million for ongoing US airlift and air refueling services to France and Chad, saying the money was for "efforts to secure Mali from terrorists and violent extremists".
Sunday's street fighting was the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault on territory reclaimed by French-led forces.
A witness said the gunmen had hidden in the empty police station then attacked Malian soldiers when they arrived, as snipers positioned in surrounding buildings opened fire.
Medical and military sources said at least two Islamist rebels and three civilians were killed and 17 people wounded, including two Malian soldiers.
Claiming the attack, MUJAO's spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui said: "The mujahedeen are in the city of Gao and will remain there."
Mali imploded after a March 22 coup by soldiers who blamed the government for the army's humiliation at the hands of north African Tuareg rebels, who have long complained of being marginalized by Bamako.
With the capital in disarray, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north. - Rappler.com