BAMAKO, Mali — Mali’s Islamist rebels seized control of the central city of Konna Thursday, encroaching further on government-held territory, said the rebels’ spokesman.
Konna, a city of 50,000 people 435 miles northeast of the capital Bamako, fell from the government to the rebels, Sanda Abu Mohammed, spokesman of the Ansar Dine rebels, told The Associated Press on the phone from Timbuktu.
The fall of Konna marks a significant push by the rebels to Mali’s center.
A Mali army spokesman refused to comment on the loss of Konna but a soldier, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak, said the army had retreated from Konna to the town of Sevare. Local residents said the government air force is sending out planes to battle the rebels from Sevare’s military airport.
The Mali army had been fighting the Islamist rebels since Wednesday with heavy weapons. Konna is strategic because it is the center of the country which divides the narrow-waisted country between insurgent-held north and the government-controlled south, government officials said Thursday.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, communications adviser for the Ministry of Defense, would not speak about the loss of Konna.
“I do not want to comment on the story much less our wounded military operations in the area,” said Kone. “But it is certain that we seek every opportunity to move northward and liberate the cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.”
Since April the Islamist rebels have occupied the vast desert of northern Mali, an area the size of France. The Islamists took advantage of a power vacuum in Mali following a March coup that overthrew the democratically elected president.
The Islamist rebels – a coalition of three groups including Ansar Dine, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO – have been implementing a strict version of Islamic law in the north, carrying out public executions, amputations and whippings.
The Islamists are carving out their own country in northern Mali and making it a center for extremism, threatening neighboring countries, according to security experts.
The United Nations Security Council has authorized military action to help the government regain control of the north, but says there must first be political progress made following the military coup last year.