BAMAKO Al Qaeda-linked Islamists declared on Thursday they had secured full control of Mali's desert north, a day after pushing their former Tuareg separatist allies out of the town of Gao in a gun battle that killed at least 20 people.
The appropriation by Islamists of a separatist uprising by Tuareg MNLA rebels regarded in the West as having some legitimate political grievances will heighten fears Mali will become a haven for jihadists.
The local Ansar Dine group and allies such as the al Qaeda splinter group MUJWA had already gained the upper hand in the northern town of Kidal and the ancient trading post of Timbuktu after government forces were routed in an April rebel advance.
"Our men control all three of the towns in northern Mali," Oumar Ould Hamaha, a Timbuktu-based Ansar Dine official said of the mostly desert territory which is larger than France.
"They (the MNLA) all ran away, we decided not to pursue them. ... All I can tell you is that they are not even in the outskirts the city," Hamaha said of the battle in Gao.
The separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad - the northern territory it claims as an independent state - said its forces beat a tactical retreat in Gao on Wednesday and rejected suggestions they had lost the battle.
"Right now some MNLA units, stationed at the borders of Azawad, are coming back to completely rid the city of Gao of Islamist groups that are terrorizing the population," MNLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher said in a written statement.
The battle was a culmination of weeks of tension between the MNLA and local Islamists who had helped it take control of the northern Mali after government forces were left without a command following a March 22 coup.
The two factions had an uneasy power sharing arrangement after seizing control of the territory. While the MNLA declared the territory an independent state, Ansar Dine rejected the idea saying its goal was to impose Islamic law across the country.
A Timbuktu resident said on Thursday that MNLA fighters who had been stationed at the city's airport and port had now even abandoned those positions.
Ansar Dine's Hamaha said more than 22 MNLA fighters including a top colonel had been killed during the Gao battle, while three of their fighters had died in combat.
He added that MNLA leader Bilal Ag Acherif had been injured and evacuated to neighboring Burkina Faso. MNLA's Attaher declined to confirm the identities or number of casualties.
The U.N. Security Council has said it would be ready to support military intervention by Mali's neighbors to help the country take back the north, but first needs more details of their plans.
West African leaders were due to meet later on Thursday in Ivory Coast's capital Yamoussoukro for a summit in which the situation in northern Mali was on the agenda.
(Additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)