Bamako: Al-Qaeda-linked radical Islamists in northern Mali have strengthen their grip on the Northern Mali after they recruited new fighters from a tribal militia, according to a witness and the group, amid growing international concern that Mali could become a lawless launch pad for terrorist activities like Afghanistan and Yemen, AP reported on Sunday.
After a coup that ousted Mali’s democratic government in March, ethnic Tuareg rebels seeking secession took control of the country’s north — an area larger than France — but were driven out in June by the Islamists vowing to introduce an ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law, the Shariah. They are estimated to number about 700 fighters, but exact figures are not available.
A resident of Douentza town told The Associated Press on Sunday that some 400 combatants of the government-backed Gandakoy militia appear to have broken ranks and joined the Islamists, bolstering the radicals’ edge over ethnic Tuareg rebels in the area. The witness, reached by phone from Bamako, declined to be named for fear of reprisals by the Islamists of the Ansar Dine group.
One of the group’s Timbuktu-based fighters, Oumar Ould Hamaha, confirmed the resident’s observation, saying the Gandakoy militants in in Douentza are “100 percent with Ansar Dine.”
Douentza, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) south of Timbuktu, is considered to lie on the front line between Mali’s army and the separatist Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad.
Ansar Dine’s spokesman, Sanda Abou Mohamed, also confirmed that the Gandakoy “who respect our principles” arrived in Douentza. “I can’t tell you the exact number of Gandakoy fighters in Douentza,” he said, adding that they are there to control one of the important roads linking the country’s south and north.
The government in Bamako said it didn’t have a complete picture of the new situation yet. “But what we tell the youth is to keep rallying behind the government to re-conquer northern Mali,” said government spokesman Hamadoun Toure.
Tuareg-led rebels who seized the north of Mali in April say they have dropped their claims for a separate state after the rebellion was hijacked by Islamists linked to al-Qaida.
“We are seeking cultural, political and economic independence but not secession,” said Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a senior MNLA member. “It would be something like Quebec,” he added, referring to the French-speaking province in Canada recognised as having a special status.
Hama Ag Mahmoud, an MNLA official based in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, said: “Independence has been our line since the start of the conflict but we are taking on board the view of the international community to resolve this crisis.”