BAMAKO: Hundreds of jihadist fighters poured into Mali over the weekend to support the Islamists who have controlled the north for seven months, ahead of a threatened regional intervention to seize back power.
Residents of the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, Malian security officials and Islamist commanders all confirmed on Sunday that there had been a huge influx of foreign fighters over the past two days.
It comes as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc of 15 countries including Mali, prepares for military action in the north.
“In the Timbuktu region and around Gao, hundreds of jihadists, mostly Sudanese and Sahrawis, have arrived as reinforcements to face an offensive by Malian forces and their allies,” a Malian security official said on condition of anonymity.
One resident of Timbuktu said “more than 150 Sudanese Islamists arrived in 48 hours”.
“They are armed and explained that they had come to help their Muslim brothers against the infidels,” he said.
A source close to a local aid group also said that many Sudanese had arrived but added there were also fighters from other countries.
Timbuktu is one of the main cities in northern Mali, which Islamist groups have controlled since overpowering a secular Tuareg rebellion that seized the area in March. The desert city is now under the control of Ansar Dine, a group led by a former Tuareg rebel leader, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In Gao, further east, a similar influx of foreign fighters was reported by residents.
Since Friday, Islamists have been arriving and reporting to the Islamic police of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the AQIM offshoot that controls the city, said one resident. He said he had seen around 10 pick-up trucks packed with armed fighters driving up to MUJAO’s main office in Gao.
The Islamist group itself confirmed it was receiving the support of foreigners as Ecowas was finalising its plans for a military intervention.
“They want war, we’ll give them war. This is why our brothers are joining us from all over,” Habib Ould Issouf, one of MUJAO’s top leaders in Gao, said.