JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A suicide bomber blew himself up at a military checkpoint outside the northern Mali city of Gao on Friday, in the first sign that al-Qaida-linked militias may be adopting new tactics since being driven back by a French-led invasion.
A man on a motorcycle approached a group of soldiers at a military checkpoint and detonated explosives, according to a military officer contacted by the Los Angeles Times. The attack was confirmed by Gao Mayor Sadou Diallo in a telephone interview.
The bomber died and one Malian soldier was injured.
An al-Qaida-allied militia, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, claimed responsibility for the attack, news agencies reported, and it vowed to carry out more.
Gao, the biggest and most important city in northern Mali, is under the control of French, Malian and African forces. France launched airstrikes last month at the request of the Malian government, driving back attacks by several Islamist militias.
It took France about two weeks to dislodge the militants from major cities in central and northern Mali. Analysts had predicted they would flee across borders or melt into the vast expanse of desert and mountains in the area, and then adopt guerrilla-style tactics, potentially including suicide bombings.
Though the militias in Mali are practiced at kidnapping Westerners, often demanding huge ransoms to bankroll their operations, they aren’t known to have used suicide attacks before.
Until French forces pushed MUJAO out of Gao last month, the city was the militant group’s stronghold, and residents there were subjected to some of the most extreme actions of the Islamists’ nine-month occupation, including the greatest number of amputations, according to Human Rights Watch. In one village on one day, the rights group said, five young men accused of theft each had a hand and a leg amputated.
It was not clear whether Friday’s bombing was aimed at soldiers or if the attacker hoped to get into the city to target civilians. It boosted the fear that militias might launch terrorist attacks on soft targets such as markets or hotels in the region.
Other African countries involved in conflicts with al-Qaida-linked Islamists, including Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, have seen reprisal attacks on such public sites. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram group has launched numerous suicide bombings, including two in 2011 aimed at United Nations and police headquarters in Abuja, the capital.
Somalia and Uganda, fighting the al-Qaida-linked militia al-Shabab in Somalia, have suffered devastating suicide bombings of civilian targets, while Kenya, involved in the same war, has seen numerous grenade attacks and bombings in the last year.
Friday’s attack came as France took control of an airport in Tessalit, in northern Mali, close to the city of Kidal and not far from the Algerian border.
French officials said their forces seized the airport in an overnight operation, mirroring the attacks on the northern cities that fell like dominoes last month. Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal all fell after French forces seized their airports.
Tessalit has been a stronghold of the militias, and its proximity to Algeria is important because some key militia leaders are Algerians.
Sumailo Guindo in Bamako, Mali, contributed to this report.