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Northern Mali Residents Rise Up Against Islamists

Militiaman from the Ansar Dine Islamic group ride on an armed vehicle between Gao and Kidal, northeastern Mali, June 12, 2012.
Militiaman from the Ansar Dine Islamic group ride on an armed vehicle between Gao and Kidal, northeastern Mali, June 12, 2012.
Residents of Goundam, in Mali's Timbuktu region, rose up against the armed group Ansar Dine on Friday after the group carried out beatings in its bid to impose strict Islamic law. Goundam residents said people began demonstrating after the group whipped a woman holding an infant.

One resident said the situation was calmer, but tense by Friday evening. He said five vehicles with Ansar Dine reinforcements arrived in the late afternoon in Goundam, a town about 80 kilometers southwest of the city of Timbuktu. Ansar Dine threatened it would round up demonstrators and the streets cleared out, he said.

Hours earlier, at mid-day local time, tires burned in the streets of Goundam, and youths carrying clubs and machetes were rallying throughout the town.

Goundam lies in the zone that was seized by Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants in late March and is now completely controlled by Islamic groups, including Ansar Dine.

Ansar Dine says it wants to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law throughout Mali. It has carried out severe corporal punishments and in recent weeks destroyed ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu it says are sacrilegious.

Residents of Goundam say Ansar Dine’s beating of a woman holding her child pushed the population over the edge Friday.

"The woman was at a pump to get water, her baby on her back," said Alassane Cissé, 47, a school director and native of Goundam. "Members of Ansar Dine were passing by and started to whip her because her scarf was down around her neck and not on her head”" He said the child fell to the ground.

"This was the straw that broke the camel’s back," Cissé added. "Youths immediately started coming out into the streets. They first gathered at the hospital and when Ansar Dine chased them from there they moved to another part of the town. Youths burned tires to block roads."

The infant and the woman are reported to be in the hospital.

Residents say Ansar Dine shot in the air during the demonstrations. They said that at around 1 p.m., just before Friday prayers, youths armed with clubs and machetes surrounded the main mosque in Goundam, vowing not to let members of Ansar Dine go inside.

Abba, a youth in Goundam, said the people have had enough. The population might not be armed, he said, but their numbers are greater than Ansar Dine’s.

"There are more of us than members of Ansar Dine," Abba said. "It’s just that they have the guns. We are here, armed with clubs and machetes and axes. We’re waiting for them."

School director Cissé says the people see that the Malian state is not helping the people of the north so the youth of Goundam "have decided to take charge of their fate."

A technical team from the regional bloc ECOWAS is in Mali meeting with civil society groups and officials of Mali's interim government, installed following a March 22 military coup. ECOWAS is planning a military intervention in northern Mali; it is awaiting a formal request by the Malian government and official backing from the United Nations Security Council.