Mali Islamists capture strategic town, residents flee
By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Islamist rebels drove the Malian army out of the strategic northern town of Konna on Thursday, residents said, in the fiercest fighting since militant groups seized control of northern Mali nine months ago.
The fall of Konna, about 600 km (375 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, was a major setback to government forces which had said earlier on Thursday they were making headway against the alliance of al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Western and regional governments are keen to dislodge the Islamists from a desert zone of northern Mali larger than France which they captured in April, amid concerns they may use it as a launch pad to stage attacks.
Konna was the last buffer between the rebels and Mopti, about 50 km (30 miles) south, which is the main town in the region and is seen as the gateway to the country's north.
After hours of gun battles, heavily armed Islamist fighters paraded in triumph through Konna's center, saying they would push on to take Mopti and its neighboring town of Sevare, residents said.
"We took the barracks and we control all of the town of Konna," MUJWA rebel group 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 Sevare, the latter the site of a large military barracks and airport. The towns lie at the crossroads between Mali's desert north and the greener, more populous south.
"We have received the order to evacuate," said the local head of a U.S. aid agency. "We have already pulled all our personnel and material out of Mopti." Continued...