Armed Islamists who control northern Mali on Thursday captured a government town in the country's center and will push further south, an Ansar Dine official told AFP.
"We are currently in Konna for the jihad. We almost entirely control the town. Afterward we are going to continue" heading south, Abdou Dardar, who was reached by telephone from the capital Bamako, told AFP.
Dardar, whose remarks were translated by an interpreter from Niger, said he was speaking in the name of all the Islamists.
The north has been controlled for nine months by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), who all promote the application of Islamic law.
The remarks by Abou Dardar, who said nothing more, were the first made by an Islamist official to AFP since the start of troop movements on Monday.
Asked by AFP, the Mali's army chief based in the city of Mopti, which is near Konna, declined immediate comment.
But residents of Konna confirmed to AFP the presence of Islamists in that central town, adding the intensity of fighting had declined in the middle of the day.
"I no longer see the Malian army. I don't know what's happening. But I know that the Islamists have left Bore to come to Konna," said a worried resident.
Bore, north of Konna, is a community controlled by Islamists who, according to a regional security source, engaged in fighting Thursday afternoon with the army in the area around Konna.
"The army is trying to resist, based on our information," the source said.
Another resident of Konna said he had seen the Islamists in the downtown of the locality. In Mopti, two witnesses said they saw an army helicopter take off, probably in the direction of Konna.
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