A top al-Qaeda commander in North Africa has urged the people of Mali to reject foreign intervention as a way of solving the country's conflict.
"To the great and proud Muslim people of Mali we say, the problem in your country is an issue between Muslims," said Abu Mosaab Abdulwadood in a videotaped message obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera.
"It can be solved internally, through reconciliation between Muslims, without having to shed a single drop of blood."
Various groups, some with links to al-Qaeda, have been fighting for control of the North for the past eight months, after the army overthrew the government in March.
The Tuareg rebels, a secular group, stepped into the security void, declaring a separate state after the rebellion was hijacked by fighters.
But rifts soon appeared between various rebel groups, each of which currently claims control of parts of the region, with the Tuareg's being pushed out of major border towns.
Phil Rees, a writer on Islamic movements, said that al-Qaeda intended to frame its fight as "a national liberation struggle".
"'Listen, there's going to a foreign army, OK, it's going to be from ECOWAS, the West African group, but they are a foreign army, coming to your soil. We now stand as national liberators of your country,'" said Rees, explaining al-Qaeda's line.
"Al-Qaeda's ultimate goal - and indeed most of the Islamists there - is to create a Caliphate," said Rees.
He added that al-Qaeda has become more opportunist, "playing political games" by trying to play to what is acceptable to "Muslim public opinion".
Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council's International Security Programme in Washington DC, said that the US government viewed the situation in Mali with "a lot more concern."
"I think you have a group that's very extremist, that's consolidating power in the north of the country, that's oppressing its own people, [that's] cutting off people's hands, [that's] stoning couples," Pavel told Al Jazeera.
"This is causing an enormous number of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, and potentially, over time, presenting even more of threat to US interests directly," he added.
Pavel said that Mali could become "Afghanistan - the sequel" - something the US state department would try to head off by supporting a West African force "in whatever way is appropriate."
He added that the ideal solution would be carried out by Africans, not the US or European countries.
Meanwhile, Islamic group Ansar Dine reportedly took control of the town of Lere from MNLA, Tuareg separatist-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
Al Jazeera's Mohamed Vall reported that a source in northern Mali had confirmed that the town, about 80 km east of the border with Mauritania, fell from MNLA control without a fight.
Earlier this week Ansar Dine sent an armed force to Lere to spend a few days outside the town, during which they gave an ultimatum to the MNLA rebels to either join them or withdraw from the town, Vall reported.
After lengthy negotiations, the MNLA fighters left the town on Tuesday evening, retreating to an area called Hassil Abyad close to the Mauritanian border.
Source: Al Jazeera