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Calm returns to Gao after a day of heavy fighting

Calm has returned to the northern Mali city of Gao, a day after heavy fighting between rebels and government troops. The clashes came a month after French troops intervened to stop a rebel advance.

Malian soldiers patrol on February 10, 2013 in northern city of Gao.A PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Mali Soldaten

While local media described the situation in the city as calm overall, this was interrupted by an explosion that rocked Gao early on Monday, in what appeared to be an isolated incident. There was no immediate word on casualties or what the target may have been. Witnesses said the blast appeared to have been in the north of the city, near a checkpoint, which had been the target of suicide attacks on Friday and Saturday.

The AFP news agency, meanwhile, reported that a French combat helicopter had bombed a police station in Gao, which was the site of Sunday's firefight between Malian soldiers and Islamist rebels.

Malian media have quoted French military sources who said that Sunday's fighting began after rebels used boats to enter the center of Gao. The ensuing gun battle lasted for several hours.

Militants from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for launching the attack on government troops in the town.

"Today God's faithful successfully attacked the Malian army, which let the enemies of Islam come to Gao," said Abou Walid Sahraoui, a spokesman for the group, referring to an attack carried out on Saturday. "MUJAO also claims the suicide bombing yesterday that made the Malian soldiers flee."

A French-led military force, backed up by air support, has retaken most of the towns in northern Mali, which had been held by Islamist rebels for most of the past year.

Northern Mali had fallen into the hands of the troops after an ill-fated military coup plunged the country into chaos. Ironically, the officers who launched the coup, said they had done so because they were unhappy with how the government was handling a revolt by Tuareg rebels in the north.

French President Francois Hollande sent in his country's troops one month ago after Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, asked for help to stop a rebel advance towards the capital, Bamako.

pfd/kms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)