A Malian soldier holds an unlit cigarette in his mouth during gun battles with Islamist insurgents in the northern city of Gao on Sunday.

An explosion shook the largest city in northern Mali early on Monday, just hours after Islamist gunmen battled French and Malian troops following two consecutive days of suicide bombings.

Malian troops said the sound of the blast appeared to have come from the north of Gao, possibly from the checkpoint at the city’s northern entrance, the target of the suicide attacks on Friday and Saturday.

Sunday’s gun battle launched by Islamist fighters on territory reclaimed by French-led forces, was the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault of the conflict.

Rocket-propelled grenade explosions and shots resounded late into the afternoon before dying down in the evening, when a power cut plunged the city into darkness.

Even after the fighting died down, however, French and Malian troops expressed concern that snipers might still be ensconced in the city.

One security source said scores of insurgents had been involved in Sunday’s fighting and a Malian army officer said several Islamists had been killed, but journalists could not verify this.

The fighting in the city started early in the afternoon when Malian soldiers clashed with Islamists in the centre of Gao, near an empty police station the rebels had used as their base until being driven from the city last month.

One witness said that after a fierce gun battle, French troops had intervened.

He reported seeing one body, which he thought was probably a civilian caught in the crossfire.

Colonel Mamadou Sanake of the Malian army said the rebels had infiltrated the city by motorcycle and via the Niger River.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), one of the al-Qaeda-linked groups that seized control of northern Mali for 10 months after a military coup in March last year, claimed the attack and a suicide bombing on Saturday, its second in two days.

A French-led force, backed by air power, has driven the Islamist group from its strongholds over the past month. But Mujao has vowed to continue fighting French and government troops. – Sapa-AFP