Mali crisis deepens as Islamists capture key town, residents flee
BAMAKO — Islamist fighters who have controlled northern Mali for months seized a government town in the country’s centre on Thursday and vowed to push further south, an Islamist official told AFP.
Abdou Dardar, from the Ansar Dine group, said fighters from the Islamist force were in the town of Konna, northeast of the regional capital of Mopti, and witnesses later in the day said Malian soldiers were retreating.
The conflict came amid other clashes between government forces and Islamist rebels in the region, marking a dramatic new phase of the crisis that until now had seen the Islamists largely remain in Mali’s vast arid north.
“We almost entirely control the town (of Konna.) Afterwards, we are going to continue” pushing south, Dardar said by phone.
Dardar, whose remarks were translated by an interpreter from Niger, said he was speaking in the name of all the Islamists.
Witnesses told AFP that Malian troops were retreating toward Sevare, near Mopti.
Earlier Thursday, a Malian officer had said troops were engaged on the ground with the Islamists. Tensions were running high in the capital Bamako too, following a day of street protests.
The north has been controlled for nine months by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), who all promote the application of Islamic law.
The new clashes reinforce the need for a planned European Union training mission to support Bamako’s troops, the EU’s foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton said Thursday.
Planning for an EU mission to train Mali government forces so they could push the rebels out remained on course and the latest clashes “only increased the need and urgency to act,” she said.
The regional capital of Mopti is strategically located between the government-controlled south and vast tracts of northern Mali seized and occupied by Islamist groups who took advantage of the chaos created by a coup in Bamako in March last year.
Alexis Kalambry, a Malian journalist and political analyst, told AFP that Mali’s army has wanted to attack the north since last month but has refrained from taking action “due to Mali’s allies.”
The presence of hardline armed Islamists in Mali’s remote desert terrain has aroused fears among regional states and the international community that the north — an area about the size of France — could become a launch-pad for Al-Qaeda activity.
While Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore is ready to host peace talks, the regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is set to deploy a force of 3,300 troops to help end the insurgency, with the support of the UN Security Council.
But no timetable has been given for an intervention and senior UN officials have warned no deployment will take place before September.
On Thursday, former colonial power France said the new clashes showed the need for a quick deployment of the international force.
“Things are happening very, very fast… We are facing terrorists” in Mali, said Yamina Benguigui, the French minister for the francophone nations.
Tensions rose in Mali’s capital and nearby Kati on Wednesday when politicians who backed the coup on March 22 last year called for street protests. The demonstrators demanded the liberation of the north and the resignation of interim President Dioncounda Traore.
This week’s fighting came after Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole, whose country is mediating in the conflict, called for restraint after reported troop movements.
The three armed Islamist groups at the centre of the crisis have taken control of the northern zones of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. The religious fighters have imposed Islamic sharia law, with punishments including death by stoning for offences such as extramarital sex — and the amputation of limbs for thieves.
Talks initially planned for Thursday between Mali’s government and two armed groups — Ansar Dine and the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) — were dropped to give all parties more time to prepare.
Ansar Dine and the MNLA, an ethnic Tuareg separatist group, are homegrown movements that mediators hope can be persuaded to reject the hardline Islamists who have been their sometime allies.AFP