Jihadists in full control of Azawad?
Islamist fighters of Ansar Dine have completely pushed Tuareg rebels of the MNLA out of Timbuktu, the jihadist organization announced June 27—days after a loosely allied Islamist faction, the MUJAO, took control of Gao from MNLA forces. A convoy of Islamist fighters is now said to be headed to Gao from Kidal, to drive the last remaining MNLA forces from the territory. Ansar Dine fighter Oumar Ould Hamaha told AP by telephone that the group now commands the northern half of Mali, an area larger than France, and plans to fully impose Islamic law. "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, chief of security for the group in Gao. "Now we have every opportunity to apply shariah." Last week in the city of Gao, an unmarried couple was publicly lashed 100 times by the militants, according to AP.
Two key Islamist leaders of Mali's breakaway north, known as Azawad, were reportedly seen in Gao after MUJAO took control—Ansar Dine's Iyad Ag Ghaly and Mokhtar Belmokhtar of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MNLA secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif was reportedly wounded with shrapnel and evacuated from Gao to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) put Timbuktu on its list of endangered World Heritage sites June 28 at the request of Mali's government. Timbuktu has 333 tombs of Islamic saints, of which 16 are classified as World Heritage Sites, including that of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, considered the most sacred in the city. There have already been incidents of the shrines, which are revered in the local variant of Sufi "folk Islam," being desecrated by the militants who now control Timbuktu. More mausoleums were reported destroyed by Islamist militants on June 29. "They have already completely destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmou and two others. They said they would continue all day and destroy all 16," local journalist Yeya Tandina told Reuters by telephone. "They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly." He added that the militants were currently taking pick-axes to the mausoleum of Sidi El Mokhtar, another revered local saint. (BBC News, June 30; VOA, Reuters, June 30; AlJazeera, AP, June 29)
See our last post on the struggle for Azawad.