GAO, Mali -- Black-robed Islamic extremists armed with AK-47 assault rifles sneaked into the city of Gao in canoes yesterday for a surprise attack on the Malian army in the most populous city in the north, two weeks after French and Malian troops ousted the jihadists.
The combat started about 2 p.m. in downtown Gao and the fighting was continuing 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.
The Islamic radicals fought against the Malian army throughout the afternoon and were seen roaming the streets and on rooftops in the center of Gao, which has a population of 90,000. Gunfire echoed across the city.
Families hid in their homes. One family handed plastic cups of water through the locked iron gate to others hiding on their patio. Piles of onions lay unattended where market women fled when the Islamists arrived. There were no signs of civilian casualties.
The fighting appeared to center near the 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 (MUJAO). Soldiers were positioned at every corner in the neighborhood of mud-walled buildings.
Ever since French forces took Gao on Jan. 26, the Islamic rebels have clashed with security forces on the city's outskirts. This was the first time they succeeded in entering the strategic city.
The Islamic fighters used canoes to cross the Niger River to penetrate Gao, according to French Gen. Bernard Barera, who cited Malian officials.
On Saturday night, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a checkpoint at the entrance to the city, killing himself and injuring a Malian soldier. Friday, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up at the same security spot, killing only himself.