A French soldier checks passengers from a transport truck arriving in Gao, northern Mali. File picture: Jerome Delay


Bamako - Militants fired a rocket into the centre of rebel-infested northern Mali's largest city on Monday, witnesses said, failing to cause any damage but panicking residents.

The rocket was launched from outside the regional capital of around 90 000 people, which was occupied by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda in 2012 before being captured by French and Malian forces.

Gao councillor Moctar Bandiougou said the rocket had “made a large hole” in the town centre.

Rocket attacks, usually blamed on Islamist fighters, are a common occurrence in northern Mali, which is struggling to return to stability after a coup in March 2012 plunged the country into crisis.

The coup opened the way for Islamist groups to seize the vast north of the country, where they ran cities under their brutal version of Islamic sharia for nine months.

Former colonial power France intervened in January last year to drive out the radicals.

After several months of calm, with French and African troops overseeing security, jihadist groups launched fresh attacks, leaving a dozen civilians, Malians and Chadian troops dead.

Although their organisational infrastructure has been shattered, various jihadist units are believed to be regrouping and carry out frequent guerilla-style attacks from their desert bolt holes.

Mali is also battling the latest separatist rebellion launched by the Tuareg, traditionally a federation of nomad tribes who rebelled in Mali and Niger in the 1960s and the 1990s, and are seeking some kind of self-determination for the country's north, a swathe of desert the size of Texas they call Azawad. - Sapa-AFP