Islamist forces in Mali’s restive northern region have seized the town of Gao following clashes with Tuareg rebels in which at least 20 people were killed.
According to the Associated Press, the Islamists forced the rebels to retreat from the town on Wednesday after hours of fighting, occupying formerly Tuareg-held buildings in Gao and replacing the rebels’ flag with the black banner of the Islamist movement.
The fighting comes a day after Tuareg rebels opened fire on protesters in the town staging a demonstration against the killing of local government official Idrissa Oumarou, and follows weeks of tension between the secular, separatist, Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamists, who teamed up in order to take over the northern two-thirds of Mali in April following a coup the previous month but appear to have been unable to reach an accord since securing power, Reuters reported.
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Last month MNLA gave in to the Islamists’ demands that Sharia be imposed across northern Mali. According to the BBC, more than 300,000 people have fled the region since the rebels gained power.
Wednesday’s fighting will only add to international fears that Mali may become a haven and base for jihadists. According to Reuters, the United Nations Security Council has indicated that it would support military intervention by the west African country’s neighbors but would require more detailed operational information first.
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