Map of Mali
Map of Mali

Islamist militants in Mali have seized the town of Menaka, the last significant stronghold of rival Tuareg separatists.

Multiple witnesses confirmed to VOA French to Africa that MUJAO, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, took control of the town from separatist group MNLA on Monday.

Residents fleeing the area said many people were killed in the fighting.

A MUJAO spokesman, Omar Hamaha, said the group killed more than 40 MNLA fighters Friday and about 50 more on Monday. He said MUJAO suffered losses of four dead and seven wounded.

A Paris-based spokesman of MNLA, Moussa Ag Assarid, said the group lost only one fighter and asserts the group still controls part of Menaka.

Mali - Ansar Dine
An April 24, 2012 photo shows Ansar Dine Islamist fighters standing guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali.

Menaka, located near Mali's border with Niger, was the last significant town ruled by the MNLA. The secular separatist group took control of northern Mali along with Islamist groups in April but was later pushed out of most regional towns.

The Islamist groups, which also include Ansar Dine and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have imposed Sharia law on the population. Rights groups and the United Nations accuse the groups of various human rights abuses. The groups have carried out public executions, amputations, and floggings of alleged criminals.

West African states are now making plans to deploy at least 3,000 troops to Mali to help an interim government retake the north.

The plan by the West African bloc ECOWAS is awaiting approval by the United Nations Security Council.