BAMAKO, Mali — Islamic extremists seized control of the strategic town of Douentza on Saturday, moving much closer to government-held territory in central Mali, according to witnesses in the town and a rebel spokesman.
Residents said a convoy of pickups carrying bearded men entered the town, about 500 miles northeast of the capital, Bamako. While far from the capital, Douentza is only 120 miles from Mopti, which marks the line-of-control held by the Malian military.
Islamist leader Oumar Ould Hamaha told the Associated Press by telephone that the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa had seized Douentza after a brief standoff with the local self-defense militia, which formerly controlled the town. The head of the militia could not be reached.
The Malian military lost control of the northern half of the country in April, including the town of Douentza. But up until now, the Islamists didn't have a presence in the town either, relying instead on an agreement with the local militia, which patrolled the area.
The fall of Douentza shows that Islamist forces are gaining territory and moving closer to southern Mali.
Until March, Mali was considered one of the most stable countries in the region, with a 20-year history of holding democratic elections. That changed in a matter of hours on March 21, when renegade soldiers overthrew the elected government. The coup plunged the nation into disarray, providing an opening for the Islamists.
The extremists have since made huge gains, taking the entire northern half of Mali, including Timbuktu, and causing some 440,000 people to flee, according to the United Nations.
Since April, however, the unofficial line of control between the government-controlled south and rebel-held north has not shifted. Saturday's development indicates the Islamists may have ambitions beyond the north.