GAO, Mali (AP) — Malian soldiers are fighting jihadists in their desert hideouts just outside Gao, the country's defense minister said Saturday, a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint on the city's outskirts.
Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara said that at least two militants were killed during the fighting that took place Friday several miles (kilometers) outside northern Mali's largest town.
"We call on the population of Gao to not give in to panic and above all to cooperate with defense and security forces to drive out the terrorists who are trying to infiltrate among civilians," Camara said by telephone from Bamako, the capital.
However, tensions remained high on Saturday, and a Malian military spokesman reported earlier in the day that two men had been arrested with explosives while trying to enter the city around 7 a.m.
Military spokesman Modibo Traore later said that the information it had received was false, and that the young men did not have any explosives on them.
While Friday's attack killed only the bomber, it has raised concerns about the future strategy of the militants, who initially appeared to put up little resistance to the French and Malian military advance.
The young man who blew himself up on Friday had been living at a house in Gao that was known as a jihadist hideout. A guard at the home said it had been visited three months ago by the one-eyed terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who claimed responsibility for the attack in Algeria on the BP-operated natural gas plant in which more than 37 people died.
Other jihadist leaders from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa — known as MUJAO — also had stayed in the luxurious two-story home with a verdant courtyard, which the militants took over when they captured Gao last year, the guard said.
Fears of suicide bombing attacks have been high since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives in Gao earlier this week.
The radical fighters seized control of northern Mali in April 2012 after a military coup in distant Bamako.
France intervened in its former colony on Jan. 11, after the Islamic militants began pushing south, raising alarm that they were inching closer toward the capital.
Residents said Friday that the French forces had retaken the far northern town of Tessalit along the border with Algeria.
France has said that it wants to hand over responsibility to the Malian military and other African nations that have contributed troops. It also has raised with the U.N. Security Council the possibility of establishing a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali.
Mali's military, though, has shown growing signs of strain. On Friday, soldiers from a unit allied with the leader of last year's military coup stormed the camp of the presidential guard. Two people were killed and 13 others were wounded, according to a statement from the Malian government.
Malian President Dioncounda Traore called the violence a major disappointment to the Malian people "at a time when the main concern of each and every Malian should be the operations we are in the middle of carrying out in the north."
The red beret-wearing former presidential guard, based at the Djicoroni camp in Bamako, was disarmed months ago by the green beret-wearing officers loyal to Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the leader of the coup in March last year. Their camp has been attacked on several occasions by the green berets, who seized the presidential guards' weapons.
When the green berets arrived at the military camp Friday, they were confronted by women and children, and fired tear gas and volleys into the air, according to Batoma Dicko, a woman who lives in the camp. It includes housing for military families. The attackers succeeded in entering the camp, carried out a search and set fire to the infirmaries, she said.
The Red Berets were the elite presidential guard who protected former President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in the coup by junior officers.
Ahmed contributed to this report from Timbuktu, Mali.