France bombed an Islamist rebel hideout 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 yesterday, 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.

Soldiers later 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.

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.

One witness to the helicopter attack said an Islamist fighter inside the police station had blown himself up.

“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 whipping and amputation.

MUJAO has claimed Sunday’s guerrilla 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 deep 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.

(This article was published on February 12, 2013)
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