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Malian Islamists move south toward government forces

Thomson ReutersEnlarge

* Malian military spots Islamist fighters

* Raises spectre of new clashes

* West African country in crisis since last March

BAMAKO, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Islamist rebels in control of
northern Mali pushed south, close to government positions on
Monday, army sources said, raising fears of fresh clashes after
months of tense standoff.

Militants seized the northern two-thirds of the arid African
nation in April, setting up what Western and regional powers
fear could provide a haven for radicals to plot international

Heavily armed Islamist groups in convoys of pick-up trucks
had been reported in the Mopti region, where government troops
have been stationed since the revolt, a Malian military official
told Reuters.

"The rebels have been advancing and have been sighted in
several places ... We are waiting for them. If they attack us,
we will fight back," said the official, who asked not to be

Ansar Dine, one of the main rebel forces which announced it
was ending a ceasefire with the government late last month,
refused to comment on whether it was moving its fighters or
planning an attack.

"For strategic reasons, we do not say where our troops are.
The Malian government is responsible for whatever it is saying
about troop movement," said group spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama.

Malian Defence Minister Colonel Yamoussa Camara told Radio
France International that "jihadist groups" had deployed at
several points along the demarcation line separating the vast
rebel-held desert north from the government-controlled south.

Regional leaders and the African Union have been pushing a
two-pronged effort of trying to negotiate a peace deal with some
moderate Islamic groups and the ethnic Tuareg separatists that
started the rebellion, while at the same time pushing for a
military reconquest of northern Mali.

The U.N. Security Council in December approved plans to
deploy an African-led military force to northern Mali to oust al
Qaeda-linked groups, in an operation not expected to begin
before September.

Ansar Dine has said it will not compromise in its demands
for sharia, Islamic law, and autonomy for northern Mali but
President Dioncounda Traore has insisted that Mali must retain
its territorial unity and the secular basis of the state.

Once a beacon of democracy in West Africa, Mali has been in
crisis since an army coup in March 2012 which created a power
vacuum that allowed Tuareg rebels to seize the north of the
country, where they want an independent state, an uprising that
was hijacked by Islamists who initially fought alongside them.