BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Residents in Mali attempting to flee the northern city of Gao, occupied for the past week by rival rebel factions, said they saw Islamist fighters cut the throat of a gunman, who is assumed to belong to the secular rebel group.
The incident appears to show that the Islamists are asserting their control in Gao, the largest city in the north, a region as large as France that fell to the Tuareg rebels a week ago in the aftermath of a coup in Bamako, Mali's capital.
Dramane Maiga, an employee of a transport company, said a bus loaded with fleeing residents attempted on Sunday to leave Gao, located more than 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from Bamako. The bus was driven off the road by Tuareg fighters who wanted to rob the occupants, and who are assumed to belong to the secular faction, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA.
The NMLA declared the independence of the nation of Azawad on Friday, but it remains unclear if they have the upper hand in the three largest cities in the north, or if an Islamist faction attempting to impose Shariah law has greater sway. Maiga said the Islamists had handed out a hotline number and encouraged residents to call if they were in trouble, apparently in an effort to instill confidence in the local population.
He said that as soon as the bus was driven off the road by a group of four Tuareg gunmen at the exit to Gao, people began calling the hotline. The Islamists arrived 30 minutes later, and an argument ensued.
Maiga said that he and everyone else on the bus saw the Islamists cut the throat of one of the Tuareg fighters, while shouting "Allah Akbar," or "God is Great," in Arabic.
There is growing international concern the Islamist faction is gaining ground in northern Mali. The Ansar Dine faction which is at the fore of the fighting is believed to be providing cover for an al-Qaida offshoot, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Their growing footprint in the vast northern stretches of Mali is especially worrying. AQIM bankrolls its operation by kidnapping foreigners and is holding French, Italian and Spanish nationals.
In the ancient northern town of Timbuktu, Mayor Ousmane Halle said the Islamists had taken over the downtown core of the city, while the NMLA was camped out at the airport.
"I do not know who our master is," he told The Associated Press this week.
The Tuaregs have been attempting to claim control of the north of Mali since at least 1958, two years before Mali's independence from France. That year, Tuareg elders wrote a letter addressed to the French president, requesting that they be given a separate nation. Mali's north where the lighter-skinned Tuaregs live was instead made part of the same nation as the country's south, where the darker-skinned Bambaras control the capital and the government.
They have fought numerous wars to try to wrest the north free, but it was not until the chaos caused by a March 21 coup in the capital that they were able to make significant gains. In the confusion that followed the military takeover, the rebel factions moved on the three largest cities, which fell over a three-day period last weekend.
The military chiefs of 13 of Mali's neighbors have held several meetings to plan a military invasion to take back the north. France has promised technical and logistical support.