BAMAKO, Mali — Islamist rebels drove the Malian army out of the strategic northern town of Konna on Thursday, local residents said, in the fiercest fighting since militant groups seized control of northern Mali nine months ago.
The seizure of the northern two-thirds of Mali by an alliance of al-Qaida-linked rebels has raised concern Islamists would use the desert zone, an area larger than France, as a launch pad to stage international attacks.
The United Nations has sanctioned an African-led military intervention but it is not expected before September. After hours of gun battles, Islamist fighters paraded in victory through Konna's center, saying they would push on to take Mopti and Severe, towns some 50 km (30 miles) south, residents said.
"We took the barracks and we control all of the town of Konna," MUJWA rebel spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha told Reuters. "The soldiers fled, abandoning their heavy weapons and armored vehicles."
News of the fall of Konna sowed panic in Mopti and Severe, site of a large military barracks and airport. The towns lie at the crossroads between Mali's vast desert north and the more populous south, home to the capital Bamako.
"We have received the order to evacuate," said the local head of one U.S. aid agency. "We have already pulled all our personnel and material out of Mopti."
The loss of Konna was a setback to government forces, who had claimed to be making headway in pushing back the insurgents, who captured the arid northern two thirds of Mali in April.
An army official earlier claimed soldiers had retaken nearby Douentza, a town in the hands of Islamists since September. But residents and a rebel spokesman said Islamists had held their positions inside the town, with government troops just outside.
The renewed fighting could hit hopes of a breakthrough at peace talks between the Malian government, the rebels and separatist Tuaregs which were scheduled to start in Burkina Faso on Thursday but have been postponed until Jan. 21.
Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso's foreign minister and regional mediator in the crisis, on Thursday called on the parties to respect a ceasefire deal agreed on Dec. 4.
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