BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Islamist fighters with ties to al-Qaida declared that they now control the northern half of Mali after driving out an ethnic Tuareg separatist group. However, the Tuareg group says it still controls at least 90 percent of northern Mali, and has lost only the main towns.
The development is more worrying news for the landlocked nation of 15.4 million, which was plunged into chaos after a coup in March.
The separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, took advantage of the power vacuum in the capital to push forward and seize the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu — the very towns it has now lost to the Ansar Dine Islamist faction.
Contacted by telephone, Oumar Ould Hamaha, a fighter with Ansar Dine, said Friday that it now commands the northern half of Mali, an area larger than France, and plans to fully impose Islamic law, or Shariah. Already last week in the city of Gao, an unmarried couple was publicly lashed 100 times by the militants.
"Our fighters control the perimeter. We control Timbuktu completely. We control Gao completely. It's Ansar Dine that commands the north of Mali," said Hamaha, who served as chief of security for the group in Gao. "Now we have every opportunity to apply Shariah."
Asked if the faction would impose the strict Islamic code against the wishes of the population, which has long practiced a moderate form of the religion, Hamaha replied: "Shariah does not require a majority vote. It's not democracy. It's the divine law that was set out by God to be followed by his slaves. One hundred percent of the north of Mali is Muslim, and even if they don't want this, they need to go along with it."
In France, the Paris-based spokesman of the NMLA, which espouses a secularist vision, downplayed the advances made by the Islamists, but conceded that the separatists had lost control of the major towns. Moussa Ag Assarid said the NMLA has not left Mali and is now controlling the major roads leading into the north, as well as the majority of the territory outside the three major towns.
"We control 90 percent of the Azawad," said Assarid, using the traditional word in the Tuareg's Tamashek language for northern Mali.