Islamist rebels seize control of Douentza

The fall of Douentza shows that Islamist forces are gaining territory and moving closer to southern Mali.

Bamako: 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 they saw a convoy of pickup trucks carrying bearded men enter the town, located about 800 kilometres northeast of the capital, Bamako. While far from the capital, Douentza is only 190 kilometres 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.

"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.

Yesterday, 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 last 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.