BAMAKO, Mali — Radical Islamists in northern Mali have briefly detained about 90 protesters and whipped them in an apparent attempt to intimidate the locals, a witness said Saturday.
Resident Hama Cisse of Goundam town, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Timbuktu, said members of the radical Islamic sect Ansar Dine went from door to door in the morning to arrest the leaders of a protest against them.
The protest erupted Friday after a young Islamist militant whipped a woman carrying a baby for not wearing what he considered to be an adequate veil, he said. The baby fell and was critically injured, according to Cisse and other residents.
But a spokesman for the al-Qaida-linked group that vows to introduce strict Islamic laws, Sanda Abou Mohamed, dismissed the protests as a smear campaign, saying the baby had not been injured. He also maintained that the group "hasn't whipped anyone in Goundam."
Another resident reached by phone, Ousmane Yattara, said angry citizens marched toward the radicals' base, vandalized the premises and took their food supplies. Residents said more than 100 people took part in Friday's protest.
The situation in Goundam remained tense Saturday, with most residents staying in their houses while the radical Islamists have set up checkpoints on all roads leading to and from the town. About two thirds of the population of about 13,000 inhabitants has already fled the city, joining an estimated more than 300,000 people who fled to neighboring countries or southern Mali to seek refuge from the Islamists.
Mali, once considered a stable democracy, has been mired in turbulence stemming from a March coup by soldiers who defected and overthrew the democratically elected president. Making matters worse, rebel groups of ethnic Tuareg separatists took advantage of the power vacuum to rapidly encroach on the northern part of Mali, an area larger than France. But in June, the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Dine declared they had driven out another rebel group of and had assumed control over northern Mali.
In a sign that eerily reminded the international community of the Taliban's destruction of famous ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Islamists have also started to destroy Muslim shrines and historical sites, including some in Timbuktu which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.