WASHINGTON: One of the Islamist groups that controls northern Mali is now classified by the United States as a terrorist organization, the State Department said Friday.
It is called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJWA, and also known as MUJAO.
The announcement came two days after the United Nations imposed sanctions on MUJWA on grounds that it is linked to Al-Qaeda.
The US classification also targets two of the organization's leaders, Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi.
The result is that "all property subject to US jurisdiction in which MUJWA, Khairy, or Tilemsi has any interest is blocked and US persons are prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them or to their benefit."
The MUJWA is one of the organizations that now rule the north of Mali and is known for hostage-taking. In late November it claimed responsibility for the abduction of a French citizen in the west of the vast nation in Africa's sub-Saharan Sahel belt.
That raised to 13 the number of foreigners held hostage by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or by MUJWA.
MUJWA was founded by a Mauritanian named Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, whose alias is Abu Ghoum-Ghoum.
Taking advantage of a coup in the capital Bamako, it seized control of the north of the country eight months ago along with AQMI and another group, Ansar Dine. All advocate strict application of Islamic law in all of Mali.
Since then the bastion of MUJWA is the northeast city of Gao, which it seized by ousting the Toureg separatist movement MNLA after fierce fighting in late June.
France and African countries are pressing for the UN's green light for an international intervention in the north of Mali, but the United States is skeptical of such a move, diplomats say.
Mali's government and the Economic Community of West African States have presented the UN with plans for a 3,300-strong international force for northern Mali and are urging that it be deployed soon.
The UN Security Council will consider a resolution presented by France, which hopes it will be approved before Christmas.