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An armed Islamist group which occupied northern Mali last year vowed Tuesday to continue its fight to drive out the French and African troops that routed it in a lightning military operation in January.
Ansar Dine, Arabic for "defenders of the faith", was one of three militant organisations to take advantage of the disarray following a coup to claim control of Mali's vast northern desert, imposing a brutal form of sharia law in its cities.
"We reassure our parents in Mali, particularly in Azawad (northern Mali), that their sons within Ansar Dine are in a good situation, resist by the grace of Allah and continue to lead the fighting under the command of Iyad Ag Ghaly, who is doing well," the group said in a statement published by Mauritanian news portal Sahara Media.
Ag Ghaly, an ethnic Tuareg rebel who gave up a career as a high-level diplomat to take up arms, founded Ansar Dine early last year, but unconfirmed reports claim he has fled abroad.
His fighters, along with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, are accused of committing atrocities in the Malian cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, including amputations and summary executions.
They were driven out by a French military action that began on January 11, supported by African troops, and are being hunted down in an ongoing French-led mission to flush them out of the remote northeastern Ifoghas mountains.
The statement said Ansar Dine had managed to inflict damage on the French army and "Chadian mercenaries" in the mountain range, "despite the siege imposed on us".
France said in early March that "dozens" of rebels had been killed in fighting in the Ifoghas.
But Ansar Dine said the death toll ascribed to the group by the French was "totally false and intended only to improve the low morale of their troops".
"The truth that the press still hides is that the French soldiers, and with them the Chadian mercenaries, continue to suffer all kinds of punishment from (our) youths (who) are hunted on land and from the air," the statement said.