11/21/2013 10:32 GMT
BAMAKO, November 21, 2013 (AFP) - Rockets were fired on northern Mali's largest city of Gao Thursday, days before legislative elections are to be held in the troubled west African nation, security sources said.
The first shot was heard around 5:00 am (0500 GMT), a security source in Gao said, adding that it was "a powerful shot, which made a lot of noise but left no damage".
A military source in the city said there had been three rockets fired, adding that they had fallen outside the urban area, into the Niger river.
Fisherman Boureima Maiga said he was on his boat when he heard "a loud noise and saw something fall into the river".
Residents also reported seeing French military aircraft above the city.
The rocket fire comes ahead of legislative elections on Sunday, three months after a presidential poll, which Mali hopes will see a full return to stability after a coup in March 2012 plunged the country into crisis.
The coup opened the way for Islamist groups to seize the vast north of the country, where they ran cities under their brutal version of sharia law for nine months.
Former colonial power France intervened in January to drive out the radicals.
After several months of calm, with French and African troops overseeing security, jihadist groups launched fresh attacks in September, leaving a dozen civilians, Malians and Chadian troops dead.
Mali is also battling the latest separatist rebellion launched by the Tuareg, traditionally a federation of nomad tribes who rebelled in Mali and Niger in the 1960s and the 1990s, and are seeking some kind of self-determination for the country's north, a swathe of desert the size of Texas they call Azawad.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), ambushed soldiers as they were on patrol at a market near the border with Niger on November 8.
The clash followed three attacks by the MNLA on soldiers in the rebel stronghold of Kidal in September, after the militants pulled out of peace talks with the government, dealing a blow to hopes of a durable peace in the troubled west African nation.
The collapse of the talks led to an upsurge in violence which saw two French journalists shot dead on November 2 during a kidnapping in Kidal by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The chief suspect in the kidnapping is a Tuareg thought to have associated with both AQIM and the mainly secular MNLA.
The Bamako government strongly opposes Tuareg autonomy but the two parties are scheduled to resume talks on a date yet to be agreed.
Some 6.5 million Malians are eligible to elect a new national assembly on Sunday, with more than 1,000 candidates running for 147 seats.
Cheick Oumar Diarrah, Mali's minister of northern reconciliation and development, said in an interview with French media earlier this month he remained confident that the shaky security situation in the north would not stop the elections going ahead.
"We believe that things can improve by November 24 as far as the legislative elections are concerned," he said.
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