BAMAKO (Reuters) - Islamist rebels drove the Malian army out of the strategic northern town of Konna on Thursday, local residents and a rebel spokesman said, in the fiercest fighting since militant groups seized control of northern Mali nine months ago.

"We launched our attack early this morning. Around 11 am (1100 GMT) we entered the town. We took the barracks and we control all of the town of Konna," said MUJWA rebel spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha.

Hundreds of residents of government-held Sevare about 50 km (30 miles) to the south were fleeing in panic, according to local residents and aid groups.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Cheick Diouara; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Dan Flynn)