BEIRUT

Middle East

Mali Islamists warn against military intervention

GENEVA: A leader of one of the Islamist groups controlling northern Mali has warned the West against sending troops in to reconquer the zone in an interview with two European newspapers.

Senda Ould Bouamama, known as Abou Mohammad, a local head of Ansar Dine and spokesman for the movement, told Swiss paper Le Temps and Belgian paper Le Soir in an interview published Monday that the international community should know better than to interfere in Mali.

"Western countries have learned lessons from their interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan where they are now starting to pull out and African countries have failed in all their military interventions, as we are seeing right now in Somalia," he said.

"(The West) is intelligent enough not to take the risk of being ridiculed once again here."

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has repeatedly proposed sending an intervention force to Mali to help authorities take back the desert north, seized by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels after a military coup that toppled Mali's elected president Amadou Toumani Toure in March.

ECOWAS has sought support from the UN Security Council, which has asked for precise details of the envisaged intervention.

According to Abou Mohammad, Ansar Dine (meaning Defenders of Faith in Arabic) -- which he says is styled on the Taliban -- is impervious to threats of a Western-backed invasion.

"We are already an Islamic state and the Taliban of Afghanistan are our model," he said.

"The fact that the whole world is against us doesn't bother us."

Since the takeover of the north, Ansar Dine and another group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) -- allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- have set about enforcing sharia.

Abou Mohammad defended the strict Islamic law's brutal system of punishments, which has in recent weeks seen hardline Islamists deal out lashings for drinking alcohol and stone an unmarried couple to death.

"Applying sharia law is a divine obligation for any Muslim and if that shocks people, it's not our problem," he said.

"We did cut off the hand of a thief, whip people drinking alcohol and stone an unmarried couple, and we destroyed mausolea, which are a heresy against true Islam," he said in reference to Ansar Dine's destruction of ancient Muslim tombs and other World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.

Ansar Dine would not for the moment seek to control other areas, added Abou Mohammad, saying the group preferred to "consolidate our presence in the region that we already control". But he warned that "jihad has no borders."

The group, which earlier this month appeared more conciliatory, declaring it would support mediation efforts by Burkina Faso, said it would help to free Western hostages held by other armed Islamist groups "if officially asked".

Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore announced Monday that he had formed a national unity government, a much-awaited move that observers hope may restore some stability to the country.

 

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