A heavily armed hardline Muslim movement that has taken control of large swathes of Mali has seized another town, moving closer to government-held territory and signalling possibly expanding ambitions.
A convoy of lorries carrying men entered the town of Douentza early on Saturday morning and disarmed the local militia, witnesses and a spokesperson said.
"We never retreat. Even if we don't advance any further, we will not go backward"
- Oumar Ould Hamaha, Islamist leader
Douentza is located about 800km northeast of the capital, Bamako, but is near the de facto border with Malian military-held territory that currently divides half of the country from the other.
The separatist leader Oumar Ould Hamaha told the AP news agency by telephone that the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) had seized Douentza after a brief standoff with the local self-defence militia. Witnesses said there were no casualties.
The Malian military lost control of the northern half of the country in April, including the town of Douentza, following a coup by a small group of soldiers who managed to overthrow the country's civilian government a month before elections were to be held.
Analysts say the MUJAO, along with similar groups like Ansar Dine, has links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and that both groups are eager to use the chaos sparked by the coup to establish a state in Malian territory governed by strict Islamic law.
An al-Qaeda-linked group said Sunday they have executed an Algerian diplomat who was kidnapped during their takeover of northern Mali, according to a statement published by a Mauritanian news agency.
Taher Touati, the Algerian vice-consul "was executed this morning [Sunday] at dawn" read the statement from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa [MUJAO] published by online news agency ANI, known for carrying reliable information on extremist groups in the region.
"The Algerian government must take complete responsibility for the consequences of its stubbornness and the misguided and irresponsible decisions of its president and its generals," read the statement.
MUJAO had on August 24 given an ultimatum to Algeria, threatening to kill the hostage after Algiers says that they rejected its demands for the release of prisoners affiliated with the movement in a hostage swap.
MUJAO, one of several al-Qaeda-linked groups which have been in control of the north for five months, claimed the April 5 kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats from a consulate in the town of Gao.
Three of the hostages were freed in July.
MUJAO asserts authority
Until now, the MUJAO did not have a presence in Douentza, relying instead on an agreement with the local militia, which patrolled the area.
But Hamaha said his group had "closed their eyes'' to numerous things the militia was doing and had lost patience in recent days after it became clear that the militia was attempting to operate independently, insisting on keeping their own name.
"I told my elements that we need to get rid of these people because they are refusing to respect us. We gave them the authorisation to come to this place, and now they want to work independently of us,'' Hamaha said on Saturday.
"In the morning, when we encircled the town, we told them to turn in their arms. They resisted a little. 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 in order to avoid a bloodbath. We tied them up and they are now with us."
Moussa Ongoiba, a resident of Douentza, said that he counted at least 10 lorries carrying the Islamists. After patrolling the town the rebels took over a hotel at the entrance to Douentza, which now serves as their military base, he said.
After settling in, the Islamists, said another resident Oumar Samba, called a meeting with officials from the mayor's office and from the town's major civic organisations. The townsmen asked MUJAO to return the arms they had seized from the self-defence militia.
"The mayor's office and civic leaders demanded that they return the arms taken from the militia,'' said Samba. "But the Islamists did not accept. Many of the members of the militia have fled in order to leave Douentza. The rest that stayed behind have been detained by the Islamists."
The fall of Douentza shows that Islamist forces are gaining territory and moving closer to southern Mali.
'Black flag of the Islamists will fly'
Since the coup the MUJAO and a separate Tuareg separatist movement in the north have made huge gains, taking more than half of Mali's territory, including Timbuktu, and causing some 440,000 people to flee, according to the UN.
In July, extremist group Ansar Dine destroyed many sufi shrines and threatened to damage more UNESCO-listed heritage sites in Timbuktu.
Since April, however, the unofficial line of control between the government-controlled south and the rebel-held north has not shifted.
Saturday's development indicates the Islamists may have ambitions beyond the north, which unlike the more developed south, is sparsely populated and largely comprised of desert.
Asked if they planned to hold Douentza, Hamaha said: "We never retreat. Even if we don't advance any further, we will not go backward.''
However, when asked specifically if they planned to try to take Bamako, he said that they would only advance on the capital if the Malian military provokes them.
"If ever the Malian military attempts to take back the north, then in less than 24 hours, we will take the quasi-totality of Bamako and the black flag of the Islamists will fly over Koulouba,'' he said, mentioning the name of the presidential palace in Mali's capital.