DAKAR, SENEGAL— Weapons fire shook the northern Malian town of Gao on Thursday as Malian army troops backed by French and West African forces battled Islamist militants. A Mali defense ministry official said the army continues to repel attacks by what he called “terrorists."
The sounds of gunfire could be heard as Gao residents talked to VOA by phone on Thursday morning. One man said machine-gun fire and cannon fire "roared" around the mayor’s office in the center of town.
Residents said the battle began Wednesday night around 11:30 p.m. local time, when some armed militants attacked positions in central Gao. The weapon fire continued into Thursday morning, and the French news agency reported that the town's main courthouse was in flames.
Malian Defense Ministry spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Diarran Koné said Gao has been liberated, but there are still “pockets of insecurity." Speaking to VOA by phone, he said the army is in “stabilization phase” in the north and “terrorists continue to attack” and the army is fending them off.
One man said the Islamists could not have entered Gao if they did not have accomplices in the city.
This Gao resident, who did not want his name used, said families are stuck at home to wait out the fighting.
He says today if you do not already have something at the house to eat, you are not eating. The weapon fire is constant. People have no choice but to stay in their homes, he says.
Gao residents said after days of closing off the city of Gao completely, troops opened up a couple of roads Wednesday, including the road to Bourem, a town in Gao region. This could not be confirmed with Malian officials.
Since Malian and French forces retook Gao from Islamist militants in January, the town has seen suicide bombings and street fighting as the extremist groups continue to attack.
French forces remain in Mali for now but France plans to withdraw the troops once an African peacekeeping force is fully established.