20 dead as Islamists seize Mali town
ISLAMISTS have claimed control of the key town of Gao in Mali’s occupied north after fierce clashes with Tuareg rebels left at least 20 people dead.
The al-Qaeda offshoot Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began fighting overnight as tensions erupted between the two armed groups which seized the town in March.
MUJAO spokesman Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui said it had “seized the governor’s palace and the residence of MNLA secretary general Bilal Ag Cherif who fled with his soldiers”.
He said some 40 members of the MNLA had been taken prisoner.
The governorate had been used by the Tuareg as their headquarters.
A local journalist reported seeing 11 Tuareg fighters lying dead in the suburb of Djoulabougou, while other witnesses counted at least 10 bodies on the road leading to the airport.
A hospital source said they had received three dead bodies of MUJAO members and were tending to 14 injured.
While the two armed groups both seized the main cities of northern Mali in an often unclear and uneasy relationship, the Islamists have taken the upper hand, enforcing strict sharia which has angered local moderate Muslims.
However the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad has remained present, pressing their demand for a secular breakaway state for their traditional homeland which covers the vast north of the bowtie-shaped nation.
The Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) which is backed by MUJAO and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is only interested in a state run under Islamic law.