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  • A Malian soldier stands guard outside the market in Gao, northern Mali, Tuesday Feb. 12 2013. Soldiers patrol the downtown area in an effort to secure it from Mujao infiltrators, two days after Mujao fighters engaged in a firefight with Malian forces. The attack in Gao shows the Islamic fighters, many of them well armed and with combat experience, are determined and daring and it foreshadows a protracted campaign by France and other nations to restore government control in this vast Saharan nation in northwest Africa.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 11:45 am

Mali soldiers step up presence in Gao after attack

By KRISTA LARSONAssociated Press

Soldiers from Niger and Mali patrolled downtown Gao on foot Tuesday, combing the sand footpaths through empty market stalls to prevent radical Islamic fighters from returning to this embattled city in northern Mali.

The heavy presence of troops near the waterfront reflects efforts to fortify the Niger River landing point where the militants invaded on Sunday and launched a five-hour-long gun battle.

The once vibrant market of vendors selling everything from fish to livestock was nearly empty. On nearby streets spice sellers were open for business, their wares giving enticing smells, but most shoppers stayed away fearing the center of commerce could be targeted by suicide bombers.

Ali Yattara kept his fabric shop open amid other shuttered businesses on the street.

"The atmosphere is calm and the presence of the troops is reassuring," he said, sitting with about a dozen people in front of his shop as the heavily armed Niger troops walked by.

However another Gao resident, Aboubacrine Almou, said he believes the city is still threatened by the Islamic fighters and that more reinforcements from other countries are needed to defend the beleaguered city.

"At this point, they can't do it alone - they need help," said Almou, carrying a radio as he walked downtown in a flowing gray robe and white turban wrapped around his head. "The French are very welcome and we are still waiting for the Americans."

The French have long said they intend for the Malians and forces from other African nations to quickly take over the military offensive, which France launched one month ago. Although France initially said that Gao would be secured by the Malians, French forces have been patrolling the city and guarding checkpoints since attacks by jihadists began last week.

Sunday's attack and two suicide bombings in which extremists detonated their explosives at military checkpoints show that Gao remains under threat. While neither suicide bombing killed other people, they have raised the alarm that the jihadists could be preparing to stage more devastating assaults on civilian centers in northern Mali.

It was still unclear how many jihadist fighters had penetrated the city in Sunday's attack, though at least 10 were killed by Malian forces, said Malian Lt. Col. Nema Sagadam.

At least 14 suspects had been arrested following searches in the area and would be transferred to the capital of Bamako, said Police Lt. Col. Salihou Maiga on Monday.

At least five of them were being held inside a building that smelled of urine with a tiny barred window. The metal door was secured with two padlocks.

One of the suicide bombers had stayed in a Gao house where Islamic extremists lived when they controlled Gao for nearly 10 months.

French President Francois Hollande said Monday his goal is that "not one space of Mali's territory be under the control of terrorists."

"The essential part of the Malian territory is today liberated, but we haven't finished our task," said Hollande in Paris. "There are still terrorist pockets, notably in the extreme north of Mali, and operations are still being conducted by a certain number of groups."

Hollande's aim will require considerable effort as the Islamic extremists have dispersed into the desert from where it appears they will launch attacks on Gao and other centers in northern Mali.