BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- Five suicide bombers carried out two simultaneous attacks on soldiers in Mali on Friday in another indication of the growing coordination of operations by militants against African and French forces.
The attacks only killed the bombers and wounded two Malian soldiers, but they highlighted the continued threat posed by the al-Qaida-linked militants, four months after France launched an offensive to oust them from urban centers in this West African nation.
Four men entered the northern Malian town of Gossi at around 4:30 a.m. Friday, according to local official Sidi Ben Hamou. Three blew themselves up at a military checkpoint, wounding two Malian soldiers.
"People thought it was water in the bottles, but it was the explosives that were inside," Ben Hamou said. The fourth suicide bomber attempted to reach a Malian military camp in the town but was shot and killed by soldiers before he could do so, said Hamou.
Meanwhile, another attacker in a vehicle laden with explosive tried to enter a military camp in the town of Menaka, authorities said.
"A car bomber tried to enter a military camp where there were soldiers from Niger in Menaka early this morning and was neutralized," said Lt. Col. Souleymane Maiga, a spokesman for the Malian military. It was not clear how many jihadists were inside the vehicle, but there were no casualties among the Nigerien soldiers.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande and visiting Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou portrayed the French-led intervention as a military victory. The French, helped by troops from neighboring African countries including Niger, launched a military operation to take back the north of Mali on Jan. 11.
"I've always said that there are still armed groups in Mali," Hollande told reporters. He reiterated that for this reason 1,000 French soldiers will remain until the end of the year "who can in any event intervene if ... there were terrorist actions."
The initial offensive led by the French succeeded in freeing the major towns in the north from the grips of the extremists, who occupied a France-sized territory a year ago, imposing Shariah law and opening terrorist training camps.
However, the northern provincial capital of Kidal was quickly retaken by a Tuareg rebel group, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad. The jihadists fled into the surrounding desert and there have been repeated suicide attacks, including at least four in Gao, and two each in Timbuktu and Kidal.
The Niger president cited the attempted suicide attack Friday morning at the Niger camp in Menaka that was defeated "in time." He said, "There are asymmetric actions that will continue to develop, but we can consider that militarily the jihadists are vanquished."
At the same time, Issoufou said that the U.N. peacekeeping mission which is to take over from the French and African forces needs to be robust.
"This mission must be a very strong mission. It is not to be a classic mission of United Nations. It's a mission that should have a strong mandate, an offensive mandate to be able to confront asymmetric actions that could develop or exist in Mali," he said.
He and Hollande both stressed that all of Mali should take part in planned presidential elections expected by the end of July.
"Every fraction of Malian territory must be capable of organizing the elections... There must be a Malian administration to organize this vote," with the help of the militaries, said Issoufou.
He said that he and Hollande are confident, adding that "the only problem until now is the absence of the Malian administration in Kidal," but "this problem should be able to resolve very quickly in the coming days." He did not elaborate.
Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley contributed to this report from Paris.
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