French soldiers speak to a Nigerian soldier on patrol in the northern city of Gao, Mali on Saturday.  Picture: REUTERS
French soldiers speak to a Nigerian soldier on patrol in the northern city of Gao, Mali. Picture: REUTERS

GAO — Northern Mali’s largest city was rocked by its second suicide bombing in two days, a soldier said on Sunday, as Islamist rebels continued defying a security lock-down on territory reclaimed by French-led forces.

The twin suicide blasts, the first such attacks in Mali, underlined the threat of a drawn-out insurgency as France, whose fighter jets were still bombing northern territory on Sunday morning, tries to map an exit strategy nearly one month into its intervention in its former colony.

The bomber blew himself up late on Saturday at the same army checkpoint in Gao where the first such attack occurred the day before.

His severed head was still lying on the ground on Sunday morning.

Witnesses said Malian troops and Islamist fighters had also exchanged gunfire after the blast. French military helicopters could be heard in the air after the bombing.

No one else was wounded in the attack, said a soldier at the checkpoint, where troops had already placed two walls of sandbags, cut down trees to increase visibility and set up machine-guns to protect themselves after Friday’s attack.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali for 10 months in the wake of a military coup, claimed responsibility for the first attack and had threatened earlier on Saturday that there would be more.

"We are dedicating ourselves to carrying out more attacks against France and its allies. We ask the local population to stay far away from military zones and avoid explosions," a group spokesman said.

The army closed the road where the blast occurred, which leads from Gao to Bourem and Kidal, two other key towns in the region.

French fighter jets bombed a government building early on Sunday morning in the town of Gourma-Rharous, between Gao and Timbuktu, a local official said.

The building "held vehicles and military equipment belonging to the Islamists", the official said on condition of anonymity. "Three Islamist vehicles were destroyed."

The latest attack came as a report said several bodies, including those of three Arab shopkeepers recently arrested by Malian troops, had been discovered in a grave in Timbuktu on Friday.

Timbuktu has been the scene of reprisal attacks by black Malians against Arab and Tuareg residents accused of supporting the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels.

Rights groups have already accused the Malian army of summary executions of Tuareg and Arabs and called on the government to protect them from reprisal attacks.

In the capital, Bamako, a shoot-out on Friday between rival army units killed two adolescents and wounded 13 other people, showing the deep divisions in the Malian military. Paratroopers loyal to former president Amadou Toumani Toure, ousted in a March 2012 coup, were protesting against an order absorbing them into other units to be sent to the frontline, when the gunfight erupted.

The fighting overshadowed the arrival of 70 European Union military trainers, the first of what will eventually be a 500-strong mission charged with whipping the Malian army into shape.

The nation imploded last year after the coup, waged by soldiers who blamed the government for the army’s humiliation by a separatist rebellion among the Tuareg, a North African people who have long complained of being marginalised by the government in Bamako.

A month later, paratroopers launched a failed countercoup that left 20 people dead.

With Bamako in disarray, al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north, imposing a brutal form of Islamic law.

French special forces and Chadian troops on Friday secured the strategic oasis of Tessalit, near the Algerian border in the far northeast, and sought to flush the Islamists out of hiding in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where they are believed to have fled with seven French hostages.