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French and Malian forces pushed into the north of Mali in a bid to drive Islamists back. There were heavy skirmishes in Gao, a French hub for operations. Foreign hostages are also thought to be held there. A car bomb also went off in Kidal, reportedly killing two.

Malian troops used heavy machine-guns to root out rebels with links to al Qaeda as the fighting spilled out into the sandy streets.

Gao lies in the desert north of the country, where Islamists infiltrated, according to the town’s mayor. Explosions and gunfire rocked the town Wednesday night. The mayor’s office came under attack and a petrol station was set alight.

A Malian Army Commander told euronews: “We’re dealing with an infiltration from last night, just before the power was cut some elements infiltrated the town and they are trying to take this,” as he pointed out a building, “As well as other assets in the neighbourhood.”

Paris is keen to avoid a long term guerrilla conflict in Mali and plans to start a withdrawal of around 4000 troops from next month. But these sustained skirmishes come at a time when Mali’s army remains weak and divided. It means Malian and African forces need their French allies now more than ever.

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