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Clashes Reported In Northern Mali As French Forces Engage Islamists

Heavy gunfire and explosions have rocked Mali's northern city of Gao, where Malian, French and West African troops are fighting Islamist militants.
Malian defense officials said Thursday the clashes erupted after militants attacked central Gao overnight and troops moved in to repel them.  The French news agency reports the main courthouse in Gao is on fire.

A Malian Defense Ministry spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Diarran Kone, tells VOA Gao had been liberated but that "pockets of insecurity" remained in the city.

French and Malian troops recaptured Gao and other northern Malian towns from Islamist militants in January.

Meanwhile, witnesses and security sources say an apparent car bombing near the northern town of Kidal has left at least two people wounded.  It was not immediately clear if the driver of the vehicle survived.

In another development, the Associated Press reports about 10 suspected militants were killed after French forces fired on a pickup truck traveling in northern Mali.  The news agency says the incident took place on Wednesday during an ongoing military operation to hunt down insurgents.

In January, French troops entered the former French colony at the request of the Malian government to help drive back Islamist militants who controlled the north and had begun moving toward the capital, Bamako.

France has announced plans to hand over its military operations to the Malian army and an African force.  French officials have also urged the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping mission in Mali.
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