In all three cities, the Islamists have attacked businesses selling alcohol, smashing bottles of beer and spirits. Residents say it's no longer possible to buy alcoholic beverages.
One of the groups that is imposing strict Islamic law, Ansar Dine — Arabic for Supporters of Islam — was formed at the end of last year and joined the Tuareg rebel group in chasing government forces out of the north a month ago. The Tuareg rebels declared independence for north Mali, but Ansar Dine (pronounced AN-sar deen) now says that it is against north Mali becoming independent.
Western diplomats in Bamako, the capital, say Ansar Dine has links with an even more hard-line militant Islamic group, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which has kidnapped Europeans and attacked government forces in Mali and beyond. Senior leaders from AQIM have been seen openly in towns in north Mali since Ansar Dine gained some control of them. Diplomats say that fighters sometimes move between the two groups.
Islamist fighters from other countries have been descending on northern Mali in the chaotic aftermath of the military coup in the capital in March that deposed the president. The vast area has become a potential haven for terrorists in a part of the Sahara bristling with heavy weapons looted from Libya. Witnesses in northern Mali and those who have fled to neighboring Niger say they have seen fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and Nigeria.
Another group that is less well known than AQIM, and may be a spinoff from that group, is the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which has also been bringing Shariah law to north Mali.
The Tuareg rebel group, which is called the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, wants the foreign fighters gone.
"We've asked the armed groups who are not from here to leave," said Albachar Ag Hamadou, a member of the NMLA. "As for other armed fighters, soon we will tell them to put down their arms and submit themselves to our authority."
It is unclear whether the Tuareg nationalists have the firepower to make the Islamists submit to that authority if they don't do so willingly.
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