A spokesman for an al-Qaida-linked militant group in northern Mali says its members are "ready to die" in order to enforce what the group considers Islamic law.
In an interview with VOA, the spokesman for extremist group Ansar Dine defended actions such as amputating the hands of thieves, destroying historic sites and silencing all non-Islamic music.
Islamist militants helped seize northern Mali from government forces five months ago, and later took full control of the region.
Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama said shortly after taking control militants began teaching people about "all things that are forbidden by their religion." He said the population was initially "very reluctant" to accept the militants' point of view. But he said eventually they did and "now we don't have any problem."
United Nations officials, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have accused groups in northern Mali of extremist and criminal activities.
Boumama defended recent punishments by extremists, including public floggings and the amputation of a suspected thief's hand.
"We are Muslims. We are going to implement Islamic law, and Islamic law punishes thieves this way," said Boumama.
In July, Ansar Dine executed a couple accused of adultery by stoning them to death.
Boumama also justified the destruction of the ancient tombs of Muslim saints in Timbuktu, saying it is forbidden to pray there.
"For someone to go to a shrine to pray for something is really a mockery; so what we have done was just to implement Sharia law. Sharia law doesn't accept this kind of things," he said.
This week militants ordered radio stations in the region to stop broadcasting all non-Islamic music, saying it is "forbidden" by Islam.
Witnesses say Ansar Dine and another group, MUJAO, are being supported by al-Qaida's northern Africa branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The United Nations and western powers have expressed concern that northern Mali is becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
Mali's interim government has vowed to retake the north from extremists.
The 15-member West Africa regional bloc ECOWAS has offered to send more than 3,000 troops to help restore order in Mali. The bloc is awaiting a formal request from Mali's new national unity government.