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Islamist forces attack Malian troops in key northern city of Gao

| Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, 7:15 p.m.

GAO, Mali — Black-robed Islamic extremists armed with AK-47 automatic rifles invaded Gao in wooden boats on Sunday to launch a surprise attack on the most populous city in northern Mali, two weeks after French and Malian troops ousted the jihadists.

Gunfire echoed for hours across the city of mud-walled buildings. The combat started at about 2 p.m. in downtown Gao, and the fighting continued as night fell. Later, the sound of gunfire was replaced by the clattering of French military helicopters overhead.

The attack in Gao shows that the Islamic fighters, many of them well-armed and with combat experience, are determined and daring, and it foreshadows a protracted campaign by France and other nations to restore government control in this vast Saharan nation in northwest Africa.

The radicals fought against the Malian army throughout the afternoon and were seen roaming the narrow streets blanketed in sand and on rooftops in the center of Gao.

There were no signs of civilian casualties.

The fighting appeared to center near police headquarters, where Malian soldiers with rocket propelled grenades traded fire with the combatants believed to be from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO.

Ever since French forces took Gao on Jan. 26, the Islamic rebels had clashed with security forces on the city's outskirts. This was the first time they succeeded in entering the strategic city.

The Islamic radicals had already tried to spread violence into Gao. On Saturday night, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a checkpoint at the entrance to the city, killing himself and wounding one Malian soldier. A suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up at the same security spot on Friday.

French and Malian forces have retaken the fabled city of Timbuktu and other northern towns, pushing the extremists back into the desert. But the Islamic fighters made strategic retreats and are dug into desert hideouts, from where they are expected to continue challenging the control of the cities.

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