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Malian military battles militants outside Gao

  • In this photo made Friday Feb. 8, 2013, French soldiers walk on the tarmac of the airport in the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali.  President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga confirmed by telephone on Friday from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)

    In this photo made Friday Feb. 8, 2013, French soldiers walk on the tarmac of the airport in the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali. President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga confirmed by telephone on Friday from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)

  • In this photo made Friday Feb. 8, 2013, A French helicopter flies towards the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali.  President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga confirmed by telephone on Friday from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)

    In this photo made Friday Feb. 8, 2013, A French helicopter flies towards the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali. President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga confirmed by telephone on Friday from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)

  • In this photo made Friday Feb. 6, 2013, French soldiers walk on the tarmac of the airport in the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali. President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga, confirmed by telephone from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)

    In this photo made Friday Feb. 6, 2013, French soldiers walk on the tarmac of the airport in the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali. President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga, confirmed by telephone from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)

  • Footprints from worshippers are left in the sand at the ancient Askia mausoleum's mosque, built in 1495 in Gao, northern Mali, Saturday Feb. 9, 2013.  On Friday, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed himself attempting to blow up an army checkpoint, the first time a suicide bomber operated in Mali. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

    Footprints from worshippers are left in the sand at the ancient Askia mausoleum's mosque, built in 1495 in Gao, northern Mali, Saturday Feb. 9, 2013. On Friday, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed himself attempting to blow up an army checkpoint, the first time a suicide bomber operated in Mali. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

  • Worshippers arrive for prayers at the Askia mausoleum's mosque, built in 1495 in Gao, northern Mali, Saturday Feb. 9, 2013.  On Friday, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed himself attempting to blow up an army checkpoint, the first time a suicide bomber operated in Mali. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

    Worshippers arrive for prayers at the Askia mausoleum's mosque, built in 1495 in Gao, northern Mali, Saturday Feb. 9, 2013. On Friday, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed himself attempting to blow up an army checkpoint, the first time a suicide bomber operated in Mali. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

  • In this photo made Friday Feb. 8, 2013, French soldiers walk on the tarmac of the airport in the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali.  President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga confirmed by telephone on Friday from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)
  • In this photo made Friday Feb. 8, 2013, A French helicopter flies towards the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali.  President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga confirmed by telephone on Friday from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)
  • In this photo made Friday Feb. 6, 2013, French soldiers walk on the tarmac of the airport in the remote desert city of Tesalit, northern Mali. President of the government body representing the area of Tessalit, Aicha Belco Maiga, confirmed by telephone from her home in Bamako that her town had been retaken by French forces. (AP Photo)
  • Footprints from worshippers are left in the sand at the ancient Askia mausoleum's mosque, built in 1495 in Gao, northern Mali, Saturday Feb. 9, 2013.  On Friday, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed himself attempting to blow up an army checkpoint, the first time a suicide bomber operated in Mali. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
  • Worshippers arrive for prayers at the Askia mausoleum's mosque, built in 1495 in Gao, northern Mali, Saturday Feb. 9, 2013.  On Friday, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed himself attempting to blow up an army checkpoint, the first time a suicide bomber operated in Mali. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Malian soldiers are fighting jihadists in their desert hideouts just outside Gao, the country’s defense minister said yesterday, a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint on the city’s outskirts.

Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara said that at least two militants were killed during the fighting that took place Friday several miles outside northern Mali’s largest town.

“We call on the population of Gao to not give in to panic and above all to cooperate with defense and security forces to drive out the terrorists who are trying to infiltrate among civilians,” Camara said by telephone from Bamako, the capital.

However, tensions remained high yesterday, and a Malian military spokesman reported earlier in the day that two men had been arrested with explosives while trying to enter the city around 7 a.m.

Military spokesman Modibo Traore later said that the information it had received was false, and that the young men did not have any explosives on them. While Friday’s attack killed only the bomber, it has raised concerns about the future strategy of the militants, who initially appeared to put up little resistance to the French and Malian military advance.

The young man who blew himself up Friday had been living at a house in Gao that was known as a jihadist hideout. A guard at the home said it had been visited three months ago by the one-eyed terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who claimed responsibility for the attack in Algeria on the BP-operated natural gas plant in which more than 37 people died.

Other jihadist leaders from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – known as MUJAO – also had stayed in the luxurious two-story home with a verdant courtyard, which the militants took over when they captured Gao last year, the guard said.

Fears of suicide bombing attacks have been high since the discovery of industrial-strength explosives in Gao earlier this week.

The radical fighters seized control of northern Mali in April after a military coup in distant Bamako.

France intervened in its former colony Jan. 11, after the Islamic militants began pushing south, raising alarm that they were inching closer toward the capital.

Residents said Friday that the French forces had retaken the town of Tessalit.

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