Mali crisis deepens as Islamists head south

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 10 Jan 2013

01/10/2013 22:21 GMT

by Serge Daniel and Ahamadou Cisse

BAMAKO, Jan 10, 2013 (AFP) - Islamist fighters who have for months controlled northern Mali seized a government town in the country's centre on Thursday and will push further south, an Islamist official told AFP, as UN officials called an emergency meeting to discuss the deepening crisis.

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 apparent rout 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 stay largely 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 said he was speaking in the name of all the Islamists.

Witnesses told AFP that Malian troops were retreating toward Sevare, near Mopti.

Diplomatic sources at UN headquarters in New York said the 15-member Security Council would meet after they heard Islamist guerrillas were within 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) of Mopti, the gateway between rebel-held and government-held areas.

During a brief visit to Bamako on Thursday, UN special representative for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said the Islamist push was of serious concern and could lead to "extraordinary" decisions from the international community.

He didn't elaborate, and stressed his presence in the Mali capital was unrelated to the developments.

Tensions were running high in Bamako, following a day of street protests Wednesday.

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.

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.

The lack of clarity and wrangling over funding the force is hampering preparations, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"We've considered this situation in Mali urgent for a number of months now, and we are eager to see the swiftest possible implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2085," Nuland told journalists.

The resolution, adopted in late December, authorised the deployment of an African-led mission in Mali for one year.

The European Union's foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton said the new clashes reinforce the need for a planned EU training mission to support Bamako's troops.

Also Thursday, former colonial power France said the new clashes showed the need for a quick deployment of the international force.

"Things are happening very, fast... We are facing terrorists" in Mali, said Yamani Beguiling, the French minister for the francophone nations.

Tensions rose in Mali's capital and nearby Kati after politicians who backed the coup on March 22 last year called for street protests. Demonstrators demanded the liberation of the north and the resignation of interim President Uncondition Tra ore.

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 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) -- will now take place January 21, Bassole said.

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.

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