French and Malian soldiers clashed with black-robed Islamist fighters in the northern town of Gao, in a surprise militant attack that defied a security lock-down following two suicide bomb attacks in two days.
Heavy gunfire and explosions resounded Sunday through the Saharan town, the largest in northern Mali, as the combined government force fought the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. French helicopter gunships flew overhead.
The attack marked the first time the Islamist group had successfully entered Gao since French-led forces took the town two weeks ago. Clashes have been ongoing for days in areas just outside the city.
A Malian military officer said militants had infiltrated the town only hours after French and Malian forces reinforced a checkpoint that had been attacked twice by suicide bombers.
Late Saturday, a suicide bomber attacked the army checkpoint near the entrance to the city, following a similar attack at the same place the day before. The two suicide blasts were the first in Mali.
The Malian military said the bomber in Saturday's attack was a young Arab man and suspected member of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
The group seized control of Gao in April and had ruled the city until the arrival of French and Malian forces last month. Military officials have said some elements of the group remain in the Gao area, and other fighters are hiding in the surrounding desert.
The group is a splinter faction of al-Qaida's North African wing which, in loose alliance with a home-grown Malian Islamist group, held Mali's main northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao for 10 months until the French-led offensive drove them out.