Islamic extremists based in the Malian town of Ansongo have destroyed a bridge near the Niger border, officials said, marking the first use of explosives by the insurgents since the start of a French-led military intervention two weeks ago.
The blast shows that the extremists remain a nimble and daunting enemy, despite gains by the French, who have recaptured three towns from the insurgents and pushed towards the Islamist stronghold of Gao, one of three provincial capitals controlled by the al Qaida-linked rebels.
Djibril Diallo, the village chief of Fafa, located 12 miles from the bridge, said by telephone that residents of his town had called him to confirm members of the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa had travelled towards the border with Niger to the outskirts of Tassiga on Thursday, before destroying the bridge crossing into the town.
The rebel group, also known as Mujao, travelled from the locality of Ansongo, roughly 25 miles from Tassiga.
"That's exactly right. They exploded it. It was last night (Thursday) at around 9pm. The Islamists left their barracks in Ansongo after the air strikes, and headed toward Niger. They caused the collapse of the bridge near the town of Tassiga, not far from Niger," said Mr 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 hospital in Ansongo after a bus they were travelling in fell into a hole in the bridge caused by the blast.
The attack recalls insurgent tactics used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It appeared aimed at stopping the advance of African troops, stationed in neighbouring Niger, who are expected to travel by road into Mali past Tassiga in order 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 Mali's parliament from the district where Tassiga is located.
"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 three-six miles and find another way to continue on the Niger-Gao road," he said.