BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked radical Islamists in northern Mali have enlisted new fighters from a tribal militia to strengthen their grip on the region, according to a witness and the group, amid growing international concern that Mali could become a lawless launch pad for terrorist activities.
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."
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.
"You know, this is not just another coup as one often thinks with a distant regard on Africa," French President Francois Hollande said. "No. In northern Mali we have a terrorism that has founded a structure, an organization, holds a territory ... and seeks to engage in terrorism not only where it has already established itself, but at an African level and maybe even in Europe," he said in a TV-interview Saturday.
Hollande also echoed earlier comments by his defense minister that a possible military intervention there would have to be decided by the African Union and the United Nations, hinting that former colonial power France would not lead such a mission but assist.
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.
In Goundam town, some 100 kilometers west of Timbuktu, the Islamists briefly detained some 90 protesters and whipped them in an apparent attempt to intimidate the locals following a demonstration against them on Friday, according to residents.
In a sign that eerily reminded the international community of the Taliban's destruction of famous ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Islamists have also started to destroy Muslim shrines and historical sites, including some in Timbuktu which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.