NEW: Special forces parachuted in to secure the airport
A suicide bomber kills a soldier at a checkpoint in Goa
France launched an offensive last month against militants in its former colony
French-led forces battling Islamist rebels seized the town of Tessalit in northern Mali on Friday, France’s defense ministry said.
Following air strikes, special forces parachuted in to secure the airport, while an armored infantry regiment moved in on the ground, the ministry said. Chadian forces participated in the operation, which came the same day that a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint, the first known attack of its kind since the launch of the French-led offensive.
The attack by a teenager occurred in the city of Gao, authorities said. One Malian soldier was killed.
“The man approached the soldiers at the checkpoint on a motorbike. As soon as he got close, he set off the bomb,” said Capt. Oumar Maiga, a spokesman for the Mali army.
French-led troops launched the effort to flush out militants in the north last month. They now control Timbuktu and Gao, along with a swath in between the two that was an Islamist stronghold for almost a year.
The ground and air campaign has sent Islamist fighters who had seized the northern region fleeing into the desert and rugged terrain nearby.
However, some militants lingered, hiding among residents in the villages.
“Unfortunately, we expected the Islamists to return to these type of attacks as they were driven out of the city,” said Lt. Col. Philippe at the French army base in Gao.
The attack is the latest setback for Malian forces. Three weeks ago, three soldiers were killed when they hit a mine near Douentza in the central region.
The monthlong French offensive has killed “hundreds” of Islamist fighters in Mali, the French defense minister said this week, as his troops prepared to start withdrawing.
Hours earlier, France told the local Metro newspaper that it expects to begin withdrawing its troops out of Mali in March and leave African forces in control.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said despite the withdrawal, troops will continue operations to flush out militants in “some terrorist havens” in northern Mali.
Islamic extremists carved out a large portion of the north last year after a chaotic military coup.
They banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and destroyed historic tombs and shrines in the region. World leaders feared that the al Qaeda-linked militants would turn the area into a terrorist haven.
CNN’s Pierre Meilhan contributed to this report.