BAMAKO - Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants have joined forces in northern Mali and say they will create an independent Islamist state. The groups took advantage of a military coup in Bamako to seize control of the territory in early April. Resistance is growing in the north to the efforts to introduce Islamic law.
In the northern Malian town of Gao, court is in session.
Commissioner Abdoulaye Maiga begins by reading from the Quran in the roadside courtyard outside the former police station.
Once an area businessman, Maiga is a member of the militant Islamist sect Ansar Dine that residents say dominates the town.
This morning, Maiga hears the case of a man accused of letting his animals graze in his neighbors' fields. The accused confesses, says he has settled previous infractions by bribing authorities. This time, he promises to compensate his neighbors for damages to their crops. The deal is accepted.
The commissioner hears other cases, including those of two men, one accused of adultery and the other of drunkenness. No witnesses were called. A VOA reporter watched as the sentences, 80 lashes each, were carried out on the spot.
Gao is one of three northern strongholds that fell to Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants during the chaos that followed a March 22 military coup in Bamako.
The two groups joined forces in late May and say they will create an independent Islamic state in what is now nearly two-thirds of Mali's national territory. Ansar Dine is already imposing its brand of Islamic law in the north.
A militant who identified himself as Ibrahim says they do not force anyone to practice Islam. He says it is Allah that has ordered Islam be practiced and that cannot be done without Sharia and an army to defend it.
Although Islam has long been practiced in the north, residents of Gao are finding the hardline approach tough to accept.
Women must be veiled in public. Persons of opposite sexes cannot walk together or touch in public. Militants have closed the city's once lively bars and nightclubs.
Violent protests erupted in Gao in mid-May, as frustrated youth tore down militants' flags and marched on the groups' separate headquarters.
Youth leader Idrissa Seydou Toure says they grabbed rocks and hunks of wood and marched. He says the occupiers are squeezing them tighter and tighter. He says now they cannot even have any fun.
They cannot watch TV or listen to music in the street like before. He says the south has abandoned them and it is up to northerners to push out the occupiers.
Ansar Dine has ties to al-Qaida's North Africa franchise, al-Qaida of the Islamic Magreb, known as AQIM, whose militants and leaders have been spotted in Gao and other towns since the occupation.
In Gao, Ansar Dine is trying to win over the population.
Militants have given out their phone numbers and come to the aid of residents against attacks by bandits and other armed groups.
Ansar Dine has posted guards outside the reopened hospital in Gao.
Midwife Zemila Isiyaku says they work in difficult conditions, but the people need them. Everyday, she says, they hear gunshots. She says it is thanks to Ansar Dine that they are able to work, it keeps them safe.
International human-rights groups say Ansar Dine's crackdown in the north has included summary executions and amputations.
In Gao, town leaders formed an elders' committee to serve as intermediary between the population and occupying forces.
Committee member and teacher Mohammed Ikeratane says they have reached a certain level of stability by taking up problems with militant leaders. But he says daily conditions are difficult.
He says the town water pump is not working properly. He also says they only have electricity for five hours a day, and there is not enough gas for the generator.
The United Nations says more than 200,000 Malians have fled the north this year.
In mid-May, Ansar Dine escorted the first convoy of humanitarian aid to reach the occupied territory. The militants manned machine guns mounted on pickup trucks. The sect's black flag flapped in the wind as the convoy rolled north.
"Embark on jihad for the sake of God," one militant said in Arabic.
Ansar Dine set the following conditions: all aid must come from Malian Muslims and no international products or agencies are allowed.
Mali's High Islamic Council organized the convoy.
The High Islamic Council's regional secretary in Gao, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed, says aid is reassuring, but the real problem of insecurity remains.
West African bloc ECOWAS has offered to deploy regional peacekeepers to Mali. The nation's military, unable to halt the rebellion in the north earlier this year, is in shambles following the coup. Analysts say the situation in the north is unlikely to change in the near future.
Amadou Maiga contributed reporting from Gao, Mali.