The discovery came a day after one rocket fired by suspected militants landed in a dusty residential neighborhood of Gao and French soldiers clashed with militants outside town. The developments highlight the complications for the military intervention by France and the risks of a looming French troop drawdown.
"It's a real war ... when we go outside of the center of cities that have been taken, we meet residual jihadists," France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Wednesday on Europe-1 radio. French troops clashed Tuesday with Islamic extremists firing rocket launchers outside Gao, he said.
French President Francois Hollande said France may start pulling out of this vast nation in northwest Africa at the end of March. Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said in Paris Wednesday that the pullout will depend on an increase in the deployment of African forces, who are meant to take over the international effort to secure Mali and help its weak army keep the peace.
The stash of NITRAM 5 explosives was hidden inside rice bags that were left in a communal trash area amid used tin cans of meat and empty plastic bottles. The Malian soldiers urged crowds of civilians who gathered nearby to stay away.
Groups of Malian soldiers on foot were called out to several sites Wednesday, including one building where they found grenades alongside a large suitcase and reading material in Arabic script about Shariah law. At another site, they called in a bomb team after finding what appeared to be a booby-trapped vehicle.
Gao has been held by French-led forces since late January, and there have been concerns of a counterinsurgency by remnants of the Islamic radicals belonging to the Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad, or MUJAO.
Le Drian said French aircraft are continuing airstrikes every night on suspected militant arms depots and mine-making sites. On the ground, troops have found war materiel, weapons manuals and makeshift laboratories for constructing improvised explosive devices.
"We discovered preparations for a true terrorist sanctuary," he said.
On Wednesday, frightened residents displayed a hole in the sand where they said a rocket had landed and was later removed by the Malian military.
"If they had hit a house, there would have been bodies here," said Adama Younoussa, a young man who lives nearby.
"If a MUJAO fighter can set himself up just 10 meters (yards) from here and fire things like this at us, what's the good of the army being here?" he asked.
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France launched a swift military intervention Jan. 11 against Islamist extremists who had taken over northern Mali, where they imposed harsh Shariah law.
The French-led mission started after the radical Islamists began pushing southward, raising fears they were headed toward the capital of Bamako. While the French-led forces quickly seized Timbuktu and Gao, the effort has been slower in the third provincial capital of Kidal.
A secular rebel movement fighting for a nation for Mali's minority Tuareg nomads claims it is holding several smaller northern towns, including Kidal, even though French and Chadian troops entered the city Tuesday.
Moussa Ag Assarid of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad said their fighters also are holding the northeastern towns of Tessalit, Menaka, Aguelhok and Tinzawatten. Azawad is what the Tuaregs call their homeland
It was not immediately possible to verify the claims. Pone networks remained down in the area.
Trouble began last year in Mali, once a stable democracy in West Africa, with the latest in a series of Tuareg rebellions in the north. Poorly armed and demoralized Malian soldiers fled before their advance, then staged in a coup in the faraway capital. NMLA fighters joined up with Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida and quickly overran all main northern cities.
But the secular fighters fell out with the Islamist extremists. As the extremists have fled the French bombing campaign, it appears the NMLA fighters have moved back into some areas.
They have said they are willing to work with the French forces but not Malian troops, whom they accuse of committing reprisals against the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs.
Press; By KRISTA LARSON and ANGELA CHARLTON]
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writer Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.
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