BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The Malian military launched air strikes Wednesday near a village that witnesses said had been seized by extremists with ties to the Islamic State group.
Witnesses reported the takeover of Talataye, in Mali’s northern Gao region, on Tuesday. The development has renewed fears extremists would again expand their reach following the Aug. 15 departure of French troops last after nearly a decade of battling insurgents.
“Islamic State fighters attacked our position in the village of Talataye and our fighting unit finally withdrew from the village,” said Fahad Ag Almahmoud, secretary general of GATIA, an umbrella organization representing formerly armed groups that signed a peace agreement with the Malian government.
But Almahmoud said it’s unclear whether the militants control the village following the air strikes.
“Last we heard, the Islamic State fighters took control of the village all night, but this morning there were air strikes by the Malian army on the site. At this moment, we still don’t know if they are still in the village or if they have withdrawn,” he said.
Extremist groups have in the past briefly seized towns and vilages. In September 2016, al-Qaeda-linked fighters took control of the central town of Boni before abandoning the town a day after the attack. Last month Islamic State-linked militants briefly took control of the town of Tessit in the Menaka region.
But some observers fear that the Malian army and its U.N. allies will be unable to keep extremists from regaining power without French military support.
In 2012, extremists seized power in major towns across Mali’s north, implementing strict Islamic law known as Shariah that included amputating the hands of suspected thieves and publicly whipping women for wearing clothing deemed too revealing.
The extremists fled into the surrounding desert when former colonial power France launched a military intervention in 2013. They have spent the last decade attacking the Malian military and a U.N. peacekeeping force trying to stabilize the country.
Frustration with the attacks helped fuel support for coup leader Col. Assimi Goita, who overthrew Mali’s democratically elected president two years ago. Goita and his junta assured Malians that they would do a better job of beating back the insurgents. But spiraling tensions between Goita and France resulted in last month’s pullout of 2,400 French troops.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.