Two men with explosives have been arrested while trying to enter the city of Gao, the Malian military said, a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack that has fueled fears of armed attacks in northern Mali.
The two suspects were in Malian military custody after being arrested at 7 a.m. on Saturday on a road that leads into northern Mali's largest city, said military spokesman Modibo Traore.
"The men were stopped at a checkpoint on the road from Bourem," Traore said of a village that is northwest of Gao.
Soldiers and paramilitary police guarding checkpoints in Gao cut down trees to increase visibility, dragged sandbags in front of their positions and set up heavy machine guns in an effort to protect themselves from attacks.
In Friday's blast, the bomber rode a motorcycle up to an army checkpoint and detonated an explosive belt, wounding one soldier, an officer said.
The young Tuareg, dressed as a paramilitary officer, was also carrying a larger bomb that failed to detonate.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed the attack and vowed to carry out more against "the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam".
MUJAO is one of a trio of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali for 10 months before France sent in fighter jets, attack helicopters and 4,000 troops to drive them out.
Struggle for control
The French-led operation, launched on January 11 as rebels advanced toward the capital, has succeeded in forcing armed groups from the towns under their control.
But they are thought to retain a presence in the vast desert spaces of the country's north and France is now anxious to hand over the operation to United Nations peacekeepers amid fears of a prolonged insurgency.
Two Malian soldiers and four civilians have already been killed by landmines, and French troops are still fighting off what Paris called "residual jihadists" in reclaimed territory.
Some villages around Gao, 1,200km northeast of the capital Bamako, continue to support the rebels, French and Malian security sources say.
"As soon as you go more than a few kilometres outside Gao, it's dangerous," a Malian officer told AFP.
Despite the success of the French operation, Mali's state and military remain weak and divided, a situation highlighted by a gunfight on Friday in Bamako between rival army troops.
The firefight erupted after paratroopers loyal to ex-president Amadou Toumani Toure - who was ousted in a March 2012 coup that eventually enabled the rebels takeover - fired into the air to protest an order absorbing them into other units to be sent to the frontline.
Two adolescents were killed and another 13 people wounded in the clash at the paratroopers' camp, state media said.
French General Francois Lecointre, leading the mission, said there was "a real need to rebuild the Malian army, which is in a state of advanced disrepair".
The nation imploded last year after the coup, waged by soldiers who blamed the government for the army's humiliation by a rebellion among the Tuareg, a North African people who have long complained of being marginalised by the south.
A month later, paratroopers launched a failed counter-coup that left 20 people dead.