GAO, Mali (AP) -- Malian soldiers patrolling the town of Gao, recently abandoned by Islamic insurgents, uncovered a stash of industrial-strength explosives Wednesday that could have been used by the jihadists to make bombs. They found grenades at another site and a possible booby-trapped vehicle.
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 the 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 withdrawal will depend on an increase in the deployment of African forces, that 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 Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO.
France's defense minister said hundreds of Islamist fighters have been killed, speaking Tuesday night on France BFM TV. French troops also have suffered casualties, but only some light wounds, he said Wednesday on Europe-1 radio. It is the first report of French casualties since a helicopter pilot was killed Jan. 11.
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 a sandy field 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.
France launched a swift military intervention Jan. 11 against Islamist extremists who had taken over northern Mali, where they imposed a harsh version of Shariah law.
In Timbuktu on Wednesday, civilians handed over dozens of arms and munitions that were piled in a heap in a city square.
They had been abandoned by Malian troops fleeing advancing rebels.
"These arms were abandoned by Malian soldiers in the houses of Timbuktu at the time they left the city in March 2012," explained Al-Hosseiny Dicko, an officer with the city's largest youth organization.
The proliferation of arms in the city of Timbuktu remains a real danger to civilians, officials and residents said.
"For every five houses that we search, we find arms in at least one," said Capt. Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for the Mali army in Timbuktu.
The French-led mission started Jan. 11 after the Islamic radicals 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 separate 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, or NMLA, said their fighters also are holding the northeastern towns of Tessalit, Menaka, Aguelhok and Tinzawatten. Azawad is what the Tuaregs call their homeland.
Mali army national spokesman Diarran Kone refused to comment on the NMLA claims, saying only that "the re-conquest is continuing." It was not immediately possible to verify the NMLA claims. Phone 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. The Malian army staged a coup in the faraway capital, Bamako, and in the chaos that followed, the Tuaregs and Islamic extremists made rapid advances, seizing the main cities in northern Mali. Poorly armed and demoralized Malian soldiers fled before their advance.
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.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Johannesburg and Baba Ahmed in Timbuktu contributed to this report.