BAMAKO — Hundreds of jihadists poured into northern Mali over the weekend to help armed Islamist groups hang on to the territory as the country's neighbours speeded up efforts to wrest control of the vast desert region from the Al-Qaeda linked militants.
Residents of the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, Malian security officials and Islamist commanders all confirmed that there had been a huge influx of foreign fighters over the past two days.
"In the Timbuktu region and around Gao, hundreds of jihadists, mostly Sudanese and Sahrawis, have arrived as reinforcements to face an offensive by Malian forces and their allies," a Malian security official said on condition of anonymity.
One resident of Timbuktu said "more than 150 Sudanese Islamists arrived in 48 hours".
"They are armed and explained that they had come to help their Muslim brothers against the infidels," he said.
The influx comes as the west African regional bloc ECOWAS forges on with plans to try and reconquer northern Mali amid fears that the area will become the same type of sanctuary for radicals that Afghanistan was a decade ago.
However Tuareg rebels who launched an offensive in January for an independent state in northern Mali denounced the reports as propaganda. The Islamists had initially piggybacked on the Tuareg rebellion to gain control of the north before sidelining the desert nomads.
Reports of "the arrival of convoys of jihadists from Sudan and the Western Sahara are totally false. We categorically deny it," said Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, an official with the Tuareg rebels' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who is living in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
He dismissed the reports as "propaganda to intimidate the international armies who want to intervene in northern Mali."
Mali's former colonial power France said that it had resumed military cooperation with the country, which it had cut off following a March coup that created a power vacuum, allowing armed Islamist groups to take over the sparsely populated desert north.
"In principle, the decision has been taken to respond to the needs of the Malian army in terms of what is necessary," including sending military advisors, Jean Felix-Paganon, Paris's special envoy for the Sahel, told AFP late on Sunday.
France has offered logistical support for the 3,000-strong force that ECOWAS has assembled to try and drive out the radicals.
On October 13, the UN Security Council gave ECOWAS 45 days to come up with a detailed plan of how it intended to recapture the vast, sparsely populated terrain.
On the ground in northern Mali, Islamist fighters were reported to have been arriving in droves since Friday in the main cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
"They want war, we'll give them war. This is why our brothers are joining us from all over," said Habib Ould Issouf, a top leader in the group that controls Gao, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
"They are coming from the camps of Tindouf in Algeria, from Senegal, from Ivory Coast, from everywhere," he told AFP.
One resident said he had seen around 10 pick-up trucks packed with armed fighters driving up to the group's headquarters in the city.
The chaos in Mali began on March 22 when army officers toppled the government in protest at what they said was its failure to equip them to counter a burgeoning rebellion by Tuareg separatists and their Islamist allies.
But the ensuing chaos allowed the rebels to sweep through the region and establish control over an area roughly the size of France.
The Islamists quickly sidelined their former Tuareg allies and established their version of Islamic law, amputating the hands and feet of thieves and stoning unwed couples, in addition to destroying revered Muslim shrines that they consider blasphemous.
In the south, the officers who led the coup handed over to an interim administration, but retain considerable influence.
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