SEVARE, Mali -- Islamic extremists based in the Malian town of Ansongo have destroyed a bridge near the Niger border, officials said Friday, marking the insurgents' first use of explosives since the start of a French-led military intervention two weeks ago.
The explosion shows that the extremists remain a nimble and daunting enemy, despite gains by the French, who have recaptured three towns and pushed Friday toward the Islamist stronghold of Gao, one of three provincial capitals controlled by the al-Qaida-linked rebels.
Djibril Diallo, the village chief of Fafa, located 12 miles from the bridge, said by phone Friday that town residents had called him to confirm that members of the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa had traveled Thursday to the outskirts of Tassiga, near the Niger border, before destroying the bridge crossing into the town. The rebel group, also known as MUJAO, traveled from the locality of Ansongo, roughly 25 miles from Tassiga.
"That's exactly right. They exploded it. It was last night at around 9 p.m. The Islamists left their barracks in Ansongo after the [French] airstrikes and headed toward Niger. They caused the collapse of the bridge near the town of Tassiga, not far from Niger," Mr. Diallo said.
Julie Damond, a spokeswoman with aid group Doctors Without Borders, which has a team in Ansongo, said no injuries were directly related to the explosion. But several people were being treated in the Ansongo hospital after a bus they were riding in fell into a hole in the bridge caused by the blast, she said by phone from Bamako, the Malian capital.
The attack recalls insurgent tactics used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It appeared aimed at stopping the advance of African troops, stationed in neighboring Niger, who are expected to travel by road into Mali past Tassiga to retake the strategic town of Gao. The bridge is not, however, the only way to cross the body of water, said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanate, a former deputy in Mali's parliament from the district that includes Tassiga. "It's a bridge that is especially used to cross the canyon during the rainy season, when there is a lot of water. But you can make a detour of three to six miles and find another way to continue on the Niger-Gao road," he said.
Despite these setbacks, Mali's military and French forces pushed Friday toward Gao in their farthest move north and east since launching the operation two weeks ago to retake land controlled by the rebels.