BAMAKO — An Islamist group led by a Tuareg rebel fighting for autonomy in northern Mali claimed control Tuesday of the country's vast northeast, while also vowing to free dozens of prisoners.
"Thanks to God, we have (the region) under our control," the group Ancar Dine said in a statement sent to AFP. "Our soldiers of God occupy the towns of Tinezawaten, Tessalit, Aguelhok, and we will soon have other victories.
"Whoever doesn't agree must leave our territory," the group added, saying also that it would free, then expel from the area, at least 110 civilian and military prisoners it claimed to be holding.
Malian government officials provided no immediate comment on the claim.
The area said to be under Ancar Dine control is a sprawling swath of desert in the poor sub-Saharan country, close to the Algerian border.
Ancar Dine, 'Defenders of Islam' in Arabic, was created by Iyad Ag Ghaly, one of the most prominent figures of a Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s.
He is thought to have links with a branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a splinter group which is led by his cousin Hamada Ag Hama.
Ancar Dine wants the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, across Mali.
Tuareg rebels -- many of whom recently returned from fighting for fallen Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi after his death -- in mid-January struck up their decades-old battle for autonomy for their nomadic desert tribe.
Ancar Dine said it had contacted members of the Islamic High Council of Mali to come to the region to collect the prisoners. An official from the council confirmed he had received a message from Ancar Dine.
The council is acting as an intermediary between Ancar Dine and the government.
The United Nations has said tens of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting between Tuareg rebels and the army.
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