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Militants blast bridge in Mali near Niger

Residents viewed damage to rebel vehicles on Friday after French airstrikes in recently liberated Diabaly, Mali.

Nic Bothma/European Press Agency

Residents viewed damage to rebel vehicles on Friday after French airstrikes in recently liberated Diabaly, Mali.

SEVARE, Mali — Islamist extremists based in the Malian town of Ansongo destroyed a bridge near the Niger border, officials said on Friday, marking the first use of explosives by the insurgents 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 on Friday pushed toward the Islamist stronghold of Gao, one of three provincial capitals controlled by the Qaeda-linked rebels.

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Djibril Diallo, the village chief of Fafa, 12 miles from the bridge, said by phone Friday that residents had called him to confirm that members of the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa had traveled toward Niger to the outskirts of Tassiga on Thursday, before destroying the bridge crossing into the town. The rebel group, also known as MUJAO, traveled from 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 airstrikes, and headed toward Niger. They caused the collapse of the bridge near the town of Tassiga, not far from Niger,” said Diallo.

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. However, 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 appeared aimed at stopping the advance of African troops, stationed in Niger, who are expected to retake the strategic town of Gao. However, the bridge is not the only way to cross the body of water, said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanate, a former deputy in Parliament.

“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 3 to 6 miles and find another way to continue,” he said.

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