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Weapons stash, rocket fire rattle Mali town of Gao

Malian soldiers inspected a stick of explosives they found Wednesday near suspicious bags left by radicals belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Malian soldiers inspected a stick of explosives they found Wednesday near suspicious bags left by radicals belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

GAO, Mali — Soldiers combing abandoned jihadist hideouts and sand-dusted streets for weapons have found industrial-strength explosives, raising the specter Wednesday of bomb attacks by the jihadists who fled into the desert after the arrival of French forces.

As the French began talking about a timeline for a troop drawdown, there also were growing concerns that the ­Islamist militants may be creeping back toward their stronghold amid reports of clashes near Gao.

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France’s defense minister said French troops had clashed the day before with Islamic extremists firing rocket launchers outside Gao. One of the rockets landed near a tree in a residential neighborhood.

Reports of the clashes and weapons stashes rattled residents still fearful less than two weeks after the departure of the radicals belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO.

In the sandy field where a rocket landed late Tuesday, people recalled how they hid in their homes.

‘‘If a MUJAO fighter can set himself up just [yards] from here and fire things like this at us, what’s the good of the army being here?’’ aid Adama Younoussa, who gathered with a group of his friends in the sandy field where only a hole now remains.

‘‘If they had hit a house, there would have been bodies here,’’ he said.

In a trash-strewn lawn amid empty tin cans of meat and used plastic bottles, Malian soldiers warned people to stay away after heavy-duty explosives were found amid the debris.

The stash of explosives was hidden inside rice bags that were left in a communal trash area. The explosives are manufactured for use in mining, but can cause considerable damage when used as bombs.

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