BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Islamists in northern Mali say they have pushed the secular Tuareg rebels out of a northwestern town and into the desert and now control the main Mali towns bordering Mauritania and Niger.
A spokesman for the extremist group Ansar Dine, Sanda Abou Mohamed, announced Wednesday that the group had taken Lere from NMLA, a secular Tuareg rebel group. "Some have joined us, others have left the city," said Mohamed.
Mohamed Ag Attaye, a spokesman for the NMLA, said after being surrounded for five days, their fighters retreated to a base north of Lere, which is 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the border with Mauritania.
Mali was plunged into turmoil in March after a coup in the capital of Bamako created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular Tuareg group to sweep across the north, taking half the territory and declaring a new nation for their people, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government. Months later, the NMLA were kicked out by Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida, which have now imposed strict Shariah law in northern Mali.
Western nations fear that instability in Mali will affect Africa's entire Sahel region and beyond. French President Francois Hollande has said the Islamists ensconced there now present a threat to Europe.
Earlier this month the Islamists seized Menaka, the Tuaregs' last bastion in northern Mali.
In the area under their control, which now includes a territory almost as large as France, the Islamists have imposed a harsh form of Islamic law. Northern Mali's independent women have been forced to wear head-to-toe veils and accused thieves have had their hands hacked off in gruesome public spectacles that recall the worst days of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Recently, Islamists seized a cache of cigarettes worth 20 million francs ($40,000) in a village 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Timbuktu. Resident Mahamane Toure said the fighters brought the contraband back to the city, gave a speech on how cigarettes are banned under Islam and set 200 cartons of cigarettes on fire.
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