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GAO (Mali), Feb 24: Islamists in northern Mali have the “destructive power” of an army, a top Malian colonel said on Sunday, while showcasing weapons seized in Gao since French-led forces retook the city last month.

“What we have here, it’s indicative of an army, or groups that have the capacity of an army,” said Gao commander Laurent Mariko, showing the stockpile of weapons to reporters.

Al Qaeda-linked armed Islamists had occupied Gao, the north’s largest city, for nine months before the French and Malian forces retook it on Jan 26 in a lightning offensive that drove radical fighters from major cities.

But since fleeing Gao under the French-led advance, militiamen regrouped on its outskirts and infiltrated the city a few days ago to attack the Malian forces newly in control.

The stockpile on display on Sunday included US-made M-16 assault rifles, Czech-made sniper rifles, Russian-made rockets and Malian army uniforms.

Mariko said the weapons — which were seized by the Malian special forces, the French army or groups of “young patriots” — had belonged to the Malian army, as well as the Senegalese gendarmerie or other neighbouring countries.

“The impression we have is that they and we (the Mali army) have pretty much the same weapons, except for the third dimension, aviation, which they don’t have,” said Colonel-Major Didier Dacko.

“They also have armoured vehicles, but we realised that they don’t know how to use or repair them,” he added.

The under-equipped Mali army was put to the test last year by armed groups, mainly Islamists, who according to several sources procured heavy weaponry in Libya.

Thanks to the fall of long-time Libyan dictator Moammar Qadhafi, who died in 2011, the armed groups were able to get hold of arms from his considerable arsenal, the sources said.

In April of last year, the Dakar-based human rights group RADDHO said that “thousands of rebels” left Libya “with 35,000 tonnes of weapons” and could have entered Mali.—AFP