|Radical Islamists Gain Ground.|
Continued insecurity in northern Mali holds grave consequences for west Africa.
Islamists Attack - The "flag had been taken down and been replaced by the flag of the Islamists.''
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have taken control of the headquarters of the local separatist rebels in the north Mali town of Gao after a bloody battle that has killed at least 20 people, residents said.
The tenuous truce between two of the rebel groups controlling northern Mali was shattered, as the al-Qaeda linked faction bent on creating an Islamic state fought its way into the buildings used by a secular rebel group reports Aljazeera News.
The latter was forced to retreat and one of their leaders was airlifted abroad after being shot in the leg.
Hamadada Toure, a local resident, said that he had cowered inside his home when the clashes started when fighters belonging to the Islamic faction known as the Movement of Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), parked a car loaded with weapons 50 meters from the headquarters of the secular rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA).
The two are among the armed groups that seized control of the northern half of Mali, an area the size of France, earlier this year.
The two groups fell out earlier this month because MUJAO and another Islamic faction want to impose Islamic law in northern Mali, while the NMLA wants to create a secular country. Last week, an unwed couple in Gao were publicly lashed.
When he emerged from his house, he found that the balance of power in the town had shifted.
"I saw five dead NMLA fighters whose bodies had been dumped on the ground near the governor's building in Gao, the headquarters of the NMLA,'' Toure said by telephone around 30 minutes after the fighting had stopped.
"In all the buildings that the NMLA had controlled, their flag had been taken down and been replaced by the flag of the Islamists.''
At least two Islamist factions emerged, including MUJAO, which seized parts of Gao, and Ansar Dine, which based itself in Timbuktu. Both Islamist groups are believed to have links to al-Qaeda and analysts say their open existence in northern Mali poses a grave security risk not just for Mali, but for the region. (Aljazeera.com)