BAMAKO, Sept 2 – Islamic extremists on Saturday seized the town of Douentza on the frontier of the northern territory they control, and the government-held south, residents told AFP.
Moussa Dicko, a teacher in the town which lies 170km (100 miles) from Mopti, which is under army control, said the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) fighters had entered the town on Saturday morning.
“This morning between 7:00am (local and GMT) and 8:00 am people from MUJAO arrived on nine 4×4 vehicles. They disarmed people from Ganda Iso” a local militia which was holding the town.
“They took all the weapons and then chased them away,” said Dicko, adding that the jihadists had met officials in the town to explain that the self-defence group — which had promised to work with them — were “traitors”.
“As I speak they have taken the different entrances and exits to the town.”
“This morning when I woke up I saw MUJAO vehicles heading towards the barracks. A while later I heard all the people from Ganda Iso had been disarmed. No one was killed. Now they are at the eastern and western entrances to the town.”
Douentza — a strategic town on the route to the fabled city of Timbuktu — was first captured in early April by separatist Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in early April.
The Tuareg, who claim Azawad as their homeland, shortly afterwards declared independence of the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The west African country, which was considered one of the regions’ most stable democracies, has plunged into crisis since the Tuareg kicked off their rebellion in January.
The desert nomads, boosted by the return of fighters from Libya, quickly overwhelmed Mali’s army in the vast desert region which is larger than France, or Texas.
Frustrated by their rout and feeling abandoned by Bamako, angry soldiers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure’s government on March 21.
The military overthrow sparked chaos which allowed the Tuareg to complete their takeover of the north, aided by armed jihadist groups allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in search of a state run under strict Islamic law.
Having piggy-backed on the Tuareg rebellion, the Islamists soon chased their erstwhile MNLA allies out of all key posts and have proceeded to enforce sharia law.