11/17/2012 13:47 GMT
BAMAKO, Nov 17, 2012 (AFP) - Al-Qaeda-linked fighters gathered reinforcements in the tense Gao region of northeastern Mali on Saturday and waited to see if the Tuareg rebels that launched a failed offensive a day earlier would regroup for a fresh assault.
The desert area of Gao has been a focus of Islamist and Tuareg activity since the once-allied fighters seized the region, along with much of Mali's arid north, following a coup and military collapse in Bamako March.
Though the dusty town of Gao and its surroundings were initially under the control of Tuaregs, who are fighting to establish an independent state, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) ousted them at the end of June.
On Friday, Tuaregs with the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) attacked the Islamist fighters but suffered a heavy defeat that saw about a dozen of their men killed, regional security sources said.
To prepare for a possible new offensive, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is linked to MUJAO, sent about 300 reinforcements from Timbuktu, about 300 kilometres (185 miles) west of Gao, witnesses told AFP.
By Saturday morning an uneasy calm had settled over the region as locals waited to see if the MNLA would again try their luck, witnesses said.
According to Moussa Salem, an MNLA fighter, "our goal remains to retake Azawad from the hands of AQIM and its allies. We can fall back, but it's only to be able to better push forwards after."
Azawad is the Tuareg name for all of northern Mali.
MUJAO spokesman Walid Abu Sahraoui said his group would continue to pursue the MNLA across the entire region.
"We are in control of the situation," he said.
Since their defeat at the hands of the radical Islamists on June 27, the more secular Tuaregs have no longer controlled any town in this massive desert region that spans two-thirds of Mali's territory.
In the regions under their control, Islamist groups have implemented sharia law and carried out brutal punishments of transgressors, including the stoning to death of an unmarried couple and the amputations of hands and feet from accused thieves.
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