BAMAKO, Mali – Islamic extremists seized control of the strategic town of Douentza on Saturday, moving much closer to government-held territory in central Mali, according to witnesses in the town and a rebel spokesman.
Residents say that early in the morning, a convoy of pickup trucks carrying bearded men entered the town, located about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Bamako. While far from the capital, Douentza is only 190 kilometers (120) miles from Mopti, which marks the line-of-control held by the Malian military.
Islamist leader Oumar Ould Hamaha told The Associated Press by telephone that the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (known by the French acronym MUJAO) had seized Douentza after a brief standoff with the local self-defense militia, which formerly controlled the town. The head of the militia could not be reached, and his phone went straight to voicemail.
The Malian military lost control of the northern half of the country in April, including the town of Douentza. But up until now, the Islamists didn't have a presence in the town either, relying instead on an agreement with the local militia, which patrolled the area.
Hamaha said they had "closed their eyes" to numerous things that the secular militia was doing. They had lost patience, however, in recent days after it became clear that the militia was attempting to operate independently, insisting on holding on to their own name ("ganda-iso," which means "sons of the land" in the local Sonrai language).
"I told my elements that we need to get rid of these people because they are refusing to respect us. We gave them the authorization to come to this place, and now they want to work independently of us," Hamaha said on Saturday.
"In the morning, when we encircled the town, we told them (the militia) to turn in their arms. They resisted a little. They tried to make phone calls to ask for reinforcements, but when they saw that no one was coming to help them they laid down their arms in order to avoid a bloodbath. We tied them up and they are now with us," said Hamaha.
Moussa Ongoiba, a resident of Douentza, said that he counted at least 10 pickup trucks carrying the Islamists. After patrolling the town the rebels took over a hotel at the entrance to Douentza, which now serves as their military base, he said.
After settling in, the Islamists, said another resident Oumar Samba, called a meeting with officials from the mayor's office and from the town's major civic organizations. The townsmen asked MUJAO to return the arms they had seized from the self-defense militia.
"The mayor's office and civic leaders demanded that they return the arms taken from the militia," said Samba. "But the Islamists did not accept. Many of the members of the militia have fled in order to leave Douentza. The rest that stayed behind have been detained by the Islamists," he said.
On Friday, before entering Douentza, the Islamists passed through the town of Hombori, where residents also counted roughly the same number of pickup trucks. Maouloud Dao of Hombori said he saw the convoy speed through his town on Friday afternoon, in the direction of Douentza — but he said that he never imagined they could actually seize the small, but key town.
The fall of Douentza shows that Islamist forces are gaining territory and moving closer to southern Mali.
Until March, Mali was considered one of the most stable countries in the region, with a 20-year history of holding democratic elections. That changed in a matter of hours on March 21, when renegade soldiers overthrew the elected government, installing themselves as the new leaders by the next morning. The coup plunged the nation into disarray, providing an opening for the Islamists in Mali's far north.
The extremists have since made huge gains, taking the entire northern half of Mali, including Timbuktu, and causing some 440,000 people to flee, according to the United Nations.
Since April, however, the unofficial line of control between the government-controlled south and the rebel-held north has not shifted. Saturday's development indicates the Islamists may have ambitions beyond the north, which unlike the more developed south, is sparsely populated and largely comprised of desert.
Asked if they planned to hold Douentza, Hamaha said: "We never retreat. Even if we don't advance any further, we will not go backward."
However, when asked specifically if they planned to try to take Bamako, he said that they would only advance on the capital if the Malian military provokes them.
"If ever the Malian military attempts to take back the north, then in less than 24 hours, we will take the quasi-totality of Bamako and the black flag of the Islamists will fly over Koulouba," he said, mentioning the name of the presidential palace in Mali's capital.
Associated Press Writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.