An offshoot of Al-Qaeda now dominates northern Mali, regional security sources said Saturday, as militants brazenly began to impose their radical vision of Islam by desecrating a holy tomb in Timbuktu.
The shock attack at the UNESCO World Heritage site came as authorities struggled to assert control in the capital Bamako days after elite soldiers failed to unseat the group of junior officers that took power in March.
Islamic and tribal Tuareg groups took advantage of the March 22 military coup in Bamako to push government forces out of northern Mali, an area the size of France and Belgium, including the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
A resident of Timbuktu said that AQIM fighters from other countries of the region had swarmed to the desert city in the far north, distributing food to the inhabitants and saying they had come to wage holy war.
Mali’s transitional government expressed outrage over the desecration, calling it “an unspeakable act”, in a statement read out on national television.
Beyond its historic mosques, the World Heritage site comprises 16 cemeteries and mausolea, according to the UNESCO website.
Sometimes called the city of 333 saints, Timbuktu is also home to nearly 100,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century, preserved in family homes and private libraries under the care of religious scholars.
Security sources said Timbuktu was under the control of Abou Yaya Hamame, the head of an elite AQIM combat unit, along with a lieutenant of Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.
A security source from Niger said AQIM was less prominent in Gao and Kidal further to the east and south but it had men loyal to it inside both cities.
A Malian defence ministry official said: “What’s happening in northern Mali concerns not only the Malian authorities but all the other countries of the sub-region.”
In March junior army officers ousted Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure, complaining that he had failed to give the army the means to combat a Tuareg separatist uprising.
But the chaos after the coup was swiftly exploited by a medley of rebel and criminal groups, which had different aims and appeared to be only loosely allied.
A Tuareg group proclaimed the independence of the region but Islamists Ansar Dine, albeit headed by a former Tuareg rebel leader, rejected the claim, saying the imposition of sharia law throughout Mali was the priority.
Under international pressure the junta eventually agreed to cede power to a civilian government but maintains its influence, with three key posts in the new interim administration.
Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has also refused demands by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for elections within 12 months.
ECOWAS leaders met in Senegal’s capital on Thursday and warned the coup leaders they would face new sanctions if they continued to defy the 15-nation bloc.
Tensions flared again early this week as elite paratroopers who had remained loyal to Toure attempted a counter-coup, leaving at least 22 people dead.
Officials said Saturday several high-ranking members of the Malian army had been arrested in recent days, including a general, Hamidou Sissoko, along with about 30 other troops and civilians.