Islamists on alert after victory over Tuareg in north Mali

BAMAKO (AFP) - Islamists patrolled the streets of Gao and arrested civilians Thursday after dislodging Tuareg rebels from their positions in the northern Mali town in a day of bloody combat between the armed groups.

Residents of the town reported that the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) had carried out patrols all through the night and arrested at least four civilians who were carrying arms.

The Tuareg fighters who spearheaded the late March takeover of northern Mali by various rebel groups, lost their main headquarters in the region as well as part of a military camp near the airport during Wednesday's clashes.

However MNLA fighter Moussa Salem said the military camp near the airport was not entirely lost.

"We still control of one part of the camp," he said, not ruling out a counter-offensive from the MNLA.

Several sources reported a column of vehicles packed with fighters for Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), another Islamist group in the region, had left the town of Kidal which is under their command, for Gao.

Witnesses counted at least 21 bodies around the town. Two dead bodies still lay in front of the governorate, the former headquarters of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

MNLA secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif was wounded and evacuated from Gao to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.

"He was mostly hit with shrapnel," a hospital source said.

Witnesses said two former colonels who defected to the rebellion were killed, and many Tuaregs were transferred to Algeria with injuries.

"In total 41 people with bullet wounds were treated in the town hospital which has been supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) since April," the ICRC said in a statement.

The key cities in the north were seized by Tuareg and Islamist rebels after a March 22 coup in Bamako, but the Islamists quickly took the upper hand and began implementing strict Islamic law in Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.

The Tuareg were after a secular independent state for their homeland, but have increasingly been pushed aside by the Islamists.

Wednesday's fighting came after one of the armed groups opened fire on demonstrators who were protesting the murder of a local official. Witnesses said the MNLA had been behind the shooting, but they accused MUJAO.