Islamic extremists based in the Malian town of Ansongo have destroyed a bridge near the Niger border, officials said, marking the first use of explosives by the insurgents since the start of a French-led military intervention two weeks ago. The explosion shows that the extremists remain a nimble and daunting enemy, despite gains by the French, who have recaptured three towns from the insurgents and on Friday pushed toward the Islamist stronghold of Gao, one of three provincial capitals controlled by the al-Qaida-linked rebels.
Djibril Diallo, the village chief of Fafa, located 20km from the bridge, said by telephone on Friday (local time) that residents of his town had called him to confirm that members of the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa had travelled toward the border with Niger to the outskirts of Tassiga on Thursday, before destroying the bridge crossing into the town. The rebel group, also known as MUJAO, travelled from the locality of Ansongo, roughly 40km from Tassiga.They exploded it.
The Islamists left their barracks in Ansongo after the airstrikes, and headed toward Niger. They caused the collapse of the bridge near the town of Tassiga, not far from Niger," said Diallo. Julie Damond, a spokeswoman with aid group Doctors Without Borders, which has a team in Ansongo, said no injuries were directly related to the explosion. However, several people were being treated in the Ansongo hospital after a bus they were riding in fell into a hole in the bridge caused by the blast, she told The Associated Press by telephone from Bamako, the Malian capital. The attack recalls insurgent tactics used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It appeared aimed at stopping the advance of African troops, stationed in neighbouring Niger, who are expected to travel by road into Mali past Tassiga in order to retake the strategic town of Gao. An elected official from northern Mali, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal, said that fighters belonging to MUJAO were seen on the bridge leading to Gao overnight, and there were reports that they planned to bomb it. They then abandoned the idea.
"Their intention was to dynamite it. But finally they decided not to. I don't know why they abandoned their plan to do so," the official said. The French currently have some 2,400 forces in the country and have said that they will stay as long as needed in Mali, a former French colony. However, they have called for African nations to take the lead in fortifying the Malian army's efforts. There are currently some 1,750 troops from countries in the region, including Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Niger and Chad.