BAMAKO, Mali — The Islamists who rule northern Mali clashed with government forces for the first time in nearly a year, seizing a strategic city Thursday as the al-Qaida-linked militants pushed toward the government line of control in the center of the troubled country.
The capture of the city of Konna marks a dangerous escalation in the Islamists’ confrontation with the Malian government, which is based hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the south in the capital, Bamako.
The fighting in central Mali also comes amid speculation that a regional military intervention to oust the extremists may not come until September at the earliest.
The Islamists seized the town of Douentza four months ago after brief standoff with a local militia, but pushed no further until clashes broke out late Wednesday in Konna, a town of 50,000 people, where fearful residents cowered inside their homes.
“We have chased the army out of the city of Konna, which we have occupied since 11 a.m.,” declared Sanda Abou Mohamed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine militant group, speaking by telephone from Timbuktu.
A Mali army spokesman refused to comment on the loss of Konna, which is just 45 miles (70 kilometers) from the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.
However, a soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said the army had retreated from Konna. He said several soldiers were killed and wounded, though he did not have precise casualty figures. “We didn’t have time to count them,” he said.
The United Nations said it was concerned about the reported military movements by rebel groups along the front line in Mali, and urged them to adhere to a Dec. 4 cease-fire, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
While Konna is not a large town, it has strategic value as “the last big thing … on the road to Mopti,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
“I think the real target here is to seize the airstrip in Mopti, either to hold it or blow enough holes in it to render it useless,” Pham said. “If you can seize the airstrip at Mopti, the Malian military’s and African militaries’ ability to fly reconnaissance in the north is essentially clipped.”
Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam, where women do not wear burqas and few practice the strict form of the religion.
In recent months, however, the terror syndicate and its allies have taken advantage of political instability to push out of their hiding place and into Mali’s towns, taking over an enormous territory they are using to stock weapons, train forces and prepare for global jihad.
The Islamists grabbed control of the major towns across northern Mali – Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal – following a military coup in the capital last March that overthrew the democratically elected president of Mali.
In their quest to implement their strict version of Islamic law, known as Shariah, Ansar Dine has been carrying out public amputations and whippings, and even stoned to death a couple who were accused of adultery.
The Islamists insist they want to impose Shariah only in northern Mali, though there long have been fears they could push further south. While the capture of Konna is likely to exacerbate those concerns, Bamako remains 435 miles (700 kilometers) away.
Local residents said the government air force is sending out planes to battle the rebels from a nearby military airport.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, communications adviser for the Ministry of Defense, would not speak about the loss of Konna or the military operations under way.
“But it is certain that we seek every opportunity to move northward and liberate the cities of Timbuktu , Kidal and Gao,” he said.
Ousmane Cisse, a resident of Sevare, a town near Mopti, said he saw wounded people arrive at a local hospital.
“In the morning I was in front of the hospital and I saw two ambulances transporting the wounded who came from the site of the fighting, but I couldn’t tell you how many there were,” he said.
The retreat by the Malian military is sure to raise questions about its ability to help lead a regional intervention.
Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council has authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions, including training Mali’s military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since the coup.
Nesirky, the U.N. spokesman, said the world body is supporting mediation efforts by the West African regional group ECOWAS and looks forward to the resumption of negotiations, scheduled for Jan. 21.
He said U.N. special envoy Said Djinnit is in Mali promoting negotiations, a national dialogue and development of a roadmap for transition, and U.N. envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, was also in Bamako on Thursday.