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Gao, Mali -
As patrols are stepped up against the jihadists who killed a Malian soldier in the northern city of Gao, fear stalks the streets for residents living under the watch of extremists.
Bintou Yattara with her three children tight by her side stood in front of a house which still bore the scars of the huge shell that almost killed them all.
“We heard something crash and there was a lot of dust, but we didn't know it had hit the house,” she said.
It was only when they ran out of their home to escape the cloud of dirt that had risen up that Yattara realised what had happened.
“Since then my family has lived in fear. We no longer know what to do,” she told AFP.
A Malian soldier was injured during the attack, claimed by Al-Qaeda splinter group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) on October 7, during which rockets rained down on the city and damaged buildings.
The soldier later died of his injuries and was buried on Wednesday, according to an army official.
The shelling was the first attack in months, though the group has been actively recruiting in West Africa and France.
For months in 2012 MUJAO imposed a brutal version of Islamic law, carrying out amputations and executions for “non-Islamic” behaviour, and were removed only after a January intervention by the French army and Malian soldiers.
“The Malian army and security forces are an active presence in the area, we have been on patrol many times seeking out the perpetrators,” said Colonel Oumar Diarra, a commander with Malian forces in Gao.
Diarra said the damage could have been far worse, as before October 7 the military had received information corroborated by more than one source of a range of “threats, infiltrations and attacks”.
A more serious attack was avoided “thanks to the people” of Gao, Diarra said.
“This attack is a failure for the jihadists because they were preparing something much bigger, and it didn't work, so they took themselves off, a certain distance away, to fire rockets on the city.”
The population's positive approach is echoed by Captain Nicolas of the French force deployed in Mali since January 11.
“We just finished a patrol in the surrounds of Gao to make sure there was no hostile presence there,” he said.
“The people are very much in favour (of us); it went really well. We are in control of the situation, and we can attest that there has been no change in people's attitude,” he added.
A French soldier was also injured conducting a routine patrol on October 12 while destroying a cache of weapons and ammunition.
However, in the atmosphere of increased insecurity, a thousand of Gao's inhabitants have staged protests in Independence Square, briefly renamed Sharia Square and used for executions by the jihadists during MUJAO's occupation of the city in the days following the rocket fire.
The demonstrators railed against alleged corruption by gendarmes and police, accused of allowing jihadists to act with near-impunity by letting them back on the streets for the sake of a small bribe.
Colonel Diarra doesn't deny the accusations. “That the population takes suspects back to the army or security forces who are released later? I wouldn't say no.
“If there is proof against these people, we would take them back into custody immediately.
“But if there is no proof, we don't have the right to hold someone. We're in a country with the rule of law,” he said. - Sapa-AFP