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February 21, 2013

French, Mali Troops in Gao Push Out Islamist Rebels

by VOA News

France's defense minister says that Malian and French troops have pushed out Islamist rebels who temporarily seized the town hall and mayor's residence in the city of Gao in northern Mali.

Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters Thursday in Brussels that five Islamists were killed in the fighting and that the situation is back to normal.

New clashes between the militants and government troops supported by French forces erupted Wednesday in Gao, which was liberated last month after an occupation by Islamist insurgents.  Reports say that the Islamists had returned to Gao overnight and took control of some government buildings.

A correspondent told VOA that heavily armed Islamist militants took up positions in the mayor's office.  He said the office was set on fire during fighting that ensued, along with the courthouse and part of a nearby market.

Malian officials and militants say the militants are part of the Islamist group known as MUJAO, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.  

A Malian Defense Ministry spokesman told VOA that while Gao was liberated last month, "pockets of insecurity" remained in the city.

In another incident, a car bomb exploded near a military base in the northern city of Kidal, killing the bomber and one civilian.  The base was being used by French and Chadian forces.

In January, French troops entered Mali, a former French colony, at the request of the Bamako government to help drive back Islamist militants who had seized northern cities and were moving toward the capital.

After a series of swift military advances in Mali, France said its forces were planning to hand over military operations to the Malian army and an African force.  French officials have also urged the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping mission in Mali.