BAMAKO, Mali – Residents of northern Mali on Monday said large groups of foreign jihadists had arrived in the towns of Gao and Timbuktu over the weekend, even as Western powers coordinate plans for military intervention in the country.
“We saw more than 120 pickups with many fighters inside,” Gao journalist Oumarou Moumouni told the German news agency dpa by phone. “(They) were speaking Arabic,” he said, adding that the vehicles were mounted with automatic rifles.
Fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, who have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, confirmed that the group had more than 355 new fighters in the town, who were “all from Sudan.”
Insurgents based in Gao said their ranks included fighters from Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt and Yemen, while a MUJAO spokesperson confirmed to dpa earlier this month that the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram also has a presence in the town.
Gao has become a stronghold of Islamist rebels since they took advantage of a power vacuum created by a military coup d’etat in March.
The Islamists have since conquered two-thirds of the country, and residents of northern towns have witnessed punishments in line with Shariah law, including stoning and amputations.
Foreign jihadists also were seen arriving in Timbuktu at the weekend, where Islamists have destroyed historic and religious buildings.
The transitional government in the capital Bamako refused to comment on the reports, saying only that, “The government is working with the international community to find a solution to the crisis.”
At a meeting in Bamako last week, United Nations and African Union officials vowed to support plans for military intervention in Mali’s north.
The AU Commission is expected to submit a draft strategic concept to the AU Peace and Security Council on Wednesday, which will be forwarded to the U.N. Security Council.