BAMAKO, MALI // Ansar Dine, an Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda has moved into a town near Mali's border with Mauritania after separatist Tuareg rebels withdrew without a fight, a spokesman said yesterday.
Islamist fighters from several groups have taken over an initial uprising by Tuareg MNLA rebels since an uneasy alliance of armed groups seized control of the north in March after a military coup paralysed the central government.
Ansar Dine, which seeks to impose Sharia law in Mali and has carried out executions and amputations in areas under its control, said it moved into the town of Lere on Wednesday afternoon.
"There was no fighting. We asked the MNLA who were there to leave. Most of them joined us. Others who didn't agree left town," spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana said.
Lee has no telephone network coverage and it was not immediately possible to independently confirm Ansar Dine's version of its capture.
The town is located around 70 kilometres east of Mali's border with Mauritania, an ally of the West in the fight against Al Qaeda in Africa.
The MNLA's erstwhile Islamist allies drove the Tuareg rebels from their main stronghold of Gao in June. A delicate coexistence had reigned in the north since then but earlier this month clashes again erupted between the MNLA and MUJWA, another northern rebel group with links to Al Qaeda.
MUJWA drove the MNLA out of the town of Menaka, near the border with Niger, last week.
United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday recommended that the Security Council approve an African Union force be sent to combat the Islamists. He stopped short, however, of offering the UN's financial backing for the force, which is not expected to deploy before next year.
Diplomats and UN officials say that peace enforcement missions allow the use of lethal force in serious combat situations, while peacekeeping operations are intended to support and monitor an already existing ceasefire. Mr Ban's cautiously worded recommendation made clear that the world body is still wary of getting back into the peace-enforcement business. He said that the council should ensure that political, human rights, training and operational benchmarks be met before any military offensive commences.