Radical Islamists hold on to gains in Mali

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“I think the real target here is to seize the airstrip in Mopti, either to hold it or blow enough holes in it to render it useless,” Pham said. “If you can seize the airstrip at Mopti, the Malian military’s and African militaries’ ability to fly reconnaissance in the north is essentially clipped.”

Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam, where women do not wear burqas and few practice the strict form of the religion.

In recent months, however, the terror syndicate and its allies have taken advantage of political instability to push into Mali’s northern towns, taking over an enormous territory they are using to stock weapons, train forces and prepare for jihad.

The Islamists insist they want to impose Shariah only in northern Mali, though there long have been fears they could push further south. Bamako, the capital, is 435 miles (700 kilometers) from Islamist-held territory.

The retreat by the Malian military raises questions about its ability to participate in a regional intervention.

Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations.

The U.N. Security Council has authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions. Those include training of Mali’s military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since a military coup last year sent the nation into disarray.

Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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