Mali Islamists take strategic town of Douentza

Fighters of the Islamist Movement for Unity and Jihad pose an abandoned Malian army tank in the northern town of Gao on 8 August 2012 (file picture) Militant Islamists in northern Mali are accused of committing war crimes

Militant Islamist rebels have seized the strategic central Malian town of Douentza, extending the area they control in the north of the country.

Witnesses said fighters of the Movement for Unity and Jihad group took the town after a brief stand-off with the local self-defence militia.

The move brings the militants closer to the government-held south-west.

The militants overran all of northern Mali after a military coup threw the country into turmoil in March.

Residents of Douentza, about 800km (500 miles) north-east of the capital Bamako, said a convoy of pick-up vehicles carrying bearded men entered the town early on Saturday.

Islamist leader Oumar Ould Hamaha told the Associated Press news agency that the attackers had encircled the town and asked the local militiamen to surrender.

"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," he said.

Residents said some of the militia's members had fled, while others were now were being held by the Islamists.

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Regional fears

Together with secularist Tuareg rebels, the Islamists rapidly overran the northern half of Mali after the March coup, but have since ended the alliance and are now largely in sole control of the area.

They have been accused of war crimes and attempting to impose a literal interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, prompting fears the region could become a regional hub for al-Qaeda-linked militancy.

Islamist fighters in the historic city of Timbuktu have demolished several Sufi shrines and mosques - regarded as idolatrous by the hard-liners - prompting international fears for the future of the Unesco world heritage site.

Under regional pressure, the coup leaders in Bamako have since handed over power to a series of shaky civilian governments, but stability remains elusive.

A new unity government formed late in August promised to spearhead initiatives to end the instability in the north.

The regional body Ecowas wants to send 3,000 troops to Mali to help restore order.

In August, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan warned that a military intervention in northern Mali was inevitable if talks with the Islamists fail.

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